1st June 2016
A new production by Crystal Pite is a major event in the dance world. Pite has an enviable reputation for creating diverse, emotionally charged work, featuring distinctive choreography. Further, she works at a consistently high level whether it be a duet or a 70-strong ensemble. And now we have Betroffenheit, a collaboration with writer and theatre director, Jonathan Young and a further bevy of awards on the horizon.
Betroffenheit means the feeling of distress and disbelief when something bad happens accidentally and there is no equivalent word in English. This dance drama describes the trauma of loss, its psychological impact and, crucially, the sometimes destructive coping mechanisms people establish. Young lost has daughter and two of her cousins in a fire at a holiday home they were sharing. In his ensuing breakdown, he became an addict and escaped into his own constructed mental refuge. If this sounds like a recipe for a grim night at the theatre, nothing could be further from the truth, as alongside searing emotional scenes of despair, we have moments that made people laugh out loud, and finally a path out of the depths. And we have Jonathan Young himself on stage, showing that life is possible after such a tragedy.
We first meet Young, alone in a dreary, near empty room perhaps a store at the back of a run-down shop – his retreat from horrifying reality. He engages in a dialogue which we later realise is with an alter ego, played by Jermaine Spivey, describing the action plan to break his addiction. In one scene, Young is with a therapist explaining his retreat from the world in believable psycho babble and with exaggerated gestures that turn the lecture into humour. Shadowy figures cross the room and nightmarish interludes depict a return to the events of the fateful night, as reality breaks through.
Then a menacing tap dancer advances into the room, a symbol of the enticing prospect of another shot and we are plunged into “show-time”: the high of addiction depicted by a pastiche carnival show with bright colours and Young himself playing host to an appreciative recorded audience, saying “I’m back. Not sure why I ever left.” Pite and the extraordinary dancers from her company, Kidd Pivot, make this humorous mix of tap, salsa other popular styles very attractive. But clearly it’s the wrong action as the music slows and Young collapses. In the after performance discussion, Young described how Pite and the dancers became entranced by “show-time” and he had to intervene to say – it’s enough. There’s a heart-breaking moment when he takes a phone call from his Mother while suffering withdrawal and he’s forgotten a key date. The second act ends with a beautiful sad song from Young.
After the interval, the room has disappeared and we see the dancers re-enacting Young’s anguish in contemporary dance full of staccato moves, leaps and freezes on a sombre stage, empty apart from the column from the first half, splitting the light. Some of the movement from the earlier scenes is repeated including one which reminded me of a sorrowful version of Matisse’s picture Dance. Their shuddering bodies and silent screams cut to the soul. A unison duet for the two women has them wrapping their hands around their bodies in their grief and agitation.
Then Young reappears with his alter ego, Spivey, and they talk again about his condition and debate how they got here and how they can leave. We see images of the earlier room on heavy sheets folding this way and that and then swept off the stage, as a symbol of the recognition that no matter how dark it may be, it is better to live in the real world. Finally Young says that he’s leaving and Spivey performs a solo coda, showing the pain and damage, but also that he can start to live again and delight in the world.
Betroffenheit shows Pite and Young forging an extraordinary artistic achievement alongside other notable collaborators. In one discussion, Pite explained that they involved the set designer, Jay Gower Taylor, and lighting designer, Tom Visser, before there was any choreography, to ensure they were not starved of time at the end of the creative process. The Kidd Pivot dancers are mesmerising: Jermaine Spivey appears boneless as his body sways and boogies around the stage; Tiffany Tregarthan creates a memorable character – the sad clown in “show-time” with pointy elbows, bent legs and wide-spread fingers. Jonathan Young not only holds our attention for most of the two hours, but is a great, untrained mover who blends in with the ensemble dance. Sadler’s Wells will bring Betroffenheit back next year and I plan to go again.