Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre
Betroffenheit by Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young
London, Sadler’s Wells
11 April 2017
The death of a child begets a grief like no other. A deep, gut-wrenching sorrow of loss that lasts a lifetime. Bereaved parents will forever feel a gap in their lives, whether it is a well-concealed but unhealable wound or a gaping chasm for all to see. Many parents shut out any external reference to the death, in what the Spanish writer Jorge Semprun described as ‘the cure of silence and studied amnesia’; others need to externalise and share their response in order to bear the unforgiving pain.
It is impossible to review Betroffenheit without reference to the tragedy that sits behind it. It represents the response of Jonathon Young to the deaths of his teenage daughter and her two cousins, in 2009. He wanted to find a way of interpreting his experience of grief into (in his own words) “…something that had some form to it.” As an accomplished actor and playwright, Young articulated his feelings in writing, as his catharsis; turning eventually to the choreographer, Crystal Pite – a family friend – to help arrange his words into an abstract, theatrical expression of the devastating shock, isolation and bewilderment of grief. The chosen title is one of those words in the German language that defies simple translation: it means shock, dismay and consternation but representing something beyond the trauma itself. A lingering state of mind.
It would be easy, in any event, to be carried along on a tide of emotional prejudice, occasioned by the inevitable sentimental connection with the personal suffering embodied in the writing. Easier still, when the grief-stricken parent is also the principal performer. Nonetheless, the steadfast achievement of the whole creative team is to have constructed this imaginative elucidation of grief, both as a response and an ongoing addiction, through the medium of dance theatre; but in a manner that never crosses a boundary into maudlin self-pity. It is certainly wretched, at times; it is often uncomfortable to watch; but, there is an uplifting spirit of recovery that climbs above the misery of distress. Strange to say, but there are momentary glimpses of joy, especially towards the end, like streams of clear water cutting through a barren land.
Structurally, Betroffenheit exhibits both the amnesiac and sharing approaches to grief, in two acts that are visually very different but remain intrinsically, thematically, textually, the same. The longer opening act takes place in a room; somewhat industrial, resembling a bunker or a plant room. As the lights come up, a cable slithers across the floor and up the wall, before we become aware of Young, gradually stirring from a comatose state. The room appears to represent his mind in the immediate aftermath of tragedy. Commands are issued – in Young’s own recorded voice – such as “You may be called upon to respond”, “Do not respond”.
Guided by his own disembodied voice, Young goes over and over a mantra of self-survival in a system that is breaking down. His room is invaded by performers from (his mind is invaded by the imagery of) a gaudy vaudeville show, including a sad, soft-shoe shuffler (David Raymond) a clown-faced showgirl (Tiffany Tregarthen) and a pair of down-at-heel salsa dancers (Brian Arias and Cindy Salgado). These are the hallucinatory ramblings of a troubled, feverish mind. Young appears, blue-suited and bewigged, as the variety show host, playing-off in a complex double-act with his alter-ego, another similarly attired host, portrayed by Jermaine Spivey (the fifth of the regulars from Pite’s Kidd Pivot company that form the supporting cast around Young). Their patter is deliberately badly scripted and unfunny but responded to by bursts of incongruous, hilarious, canned laughter. Young manipulates a puppet; he becomes a puppet. When he eventually begins to re-establish his conscious self and glimpses the area of escape beyond the “room”, his thoughts – the vaudeville players – reassert that gulley of deeper guilt and consign him to a box.
The second, much shorter, act replays some of the assertive, demanding text but is far more dance-based. The performers have swapped their show costumes for grey, everyday clothing and the detailed interior of “the room” has disappeared; although the performers appear to reinterpret some of the choreography from the first half, but without props. Their movement is softer and less frenetic. The nightmare is gradually being repaired although Young’s grief remains palpable. Spivey still appears to project his alter-ego, dancing an off-kilter, floppy, creased and crumpled finale, gradually disappearing upstage in the gloom. One senses that there will never be an end to “it”, but “it” is moving; “it” is strengthening, “it” is leaving “the room”.
The choreography of Crystal Pite and the fluid dancing of her five company members elevates this work above the extraordinary place already secured by Young’s powerful acting. Spivey, in particular, is an extraordinary dancer with impressive qualities of movement ; and, yet, it was Young who won the National Dance Award for Outstanding Male Performance, following the show’s London premiere, at this theatre, in 2016. On this repeat viewing, it seemed well-merited by his deft inter-action with the other dancers. Pite’s choreography – here, as always – requires patterns of integration with dancers performing in close harmony and, far from being the dance outsider, Young is often the engine at the epicentre of this group movement.
It was a privilege to see Betroffenheit, just 48 hours after it had won the Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production. It was just a two-gig London reprise for this splendid hybrid of theatre and dance, but for those who missed it, this opening night was filmed for broadcast on BBC4 at a later, as yet unspecified, date.