Crystal Pite reflects on the adventure of Betroffenheit

Born of loss and trauma, the powerful dance-theatre work has connected with audiences around the globe

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      Betroffenheit’s amazing journey has taken its creative team to some dark places. But it has also taken the group to stages in Australia, Taiwan, and France; to Britain’s prestigious Olivier Awards ceremony; and to the pages of newspapers around the globe. (The Guardian deemed it one of the must-see shows of 2017.) It is, without a doubt, one of the most buzzed-about productions ever to have come out of this city.

      Now, this mounting of the work first envisioned by Kidd Pivot choreographer Crystal Pite and Electric Company Theatre artistic associate Jonathon Young is entering its final stages. The show has just been in Taiwan and New Zealand, and it has a last homecoming to Vancouver next week. After that, it hits Spain, Belgium, Italy, Norway, and Switzerland before wrapping up in Montreal in June. It’s an emotional time.

      “It’s going to be really hard when it has its last show in Montreal,” says Pite, speaking to the Straight from her Vancouver home. “It’s coming to the end of its chapter. I won’t say ‘life’ because I can’t bear to think that we won’t ever do it again. But it does feel like a good place to stop. It’s a monster of a show for our performers and our crew, and it takes a lot out of them.”

      With Betroffenheit, Pite and Young built a show out of Young’s real-life trauma, the unbearable loss of his child, Azra Young, and her cousins Fergus and Phoebe Conway in a 2009 cabin fire at Shuswap Lake. In the dance-theatre work, grief takes the form of an inescapable, Sartrean room where a dark carnival of sneering clowns and tap dancers traps Young in his thoughts. Dance and language interplay to show the mix of guilt and PTSD that imprisons him here, but they also, eventually, provide hope and a way out.

      Kidd Pivot choreographer Crystal Pite.

      “It does feel like it’s taken on a life of its own,” Pite observes of Betroffenheit. “Every time we go back to it we discover new things. It’s true of everything we do that it deepens with time—but Betroffenheit is particularly special because of the content and what it aspires to do. It’s actually connecting with people, keeping this interesting conversation alive. I feel like the show has become a family. We love it so much. And it loves us, too.”

      Pite admits she and her collaborators once worried the subject matter might not resonate with a wider audience unfamiliar with Young’s painful history.

      “We wondered if we moved outside of our circle, how the show would connect,” she explains. “And I think it was really satisfying to know that it did connect, and that you didn’t need to know Jonathon’s own personal story. It was about the larger questions of suffering and survival—and to know the show was doing that away from our home was really satisfying.”

      The production received some of its most powerful reactions in Paris and Amsterdam with carefully translated surtitles, she recalls, struggling to articulate the impact she witnessed it having on those audiences.

      “There’s a hush that happens when people are connecting, a sense that the audience is connecting as a group, a sense of suspension, a stillness, a silence where nobody seems to breathe or shift,” she says. “Also, there’s the reaction at the end of the show—there have been standing Os everywhere we’ve gone, and exuberance and applause. So it’s a combination of hush and noise. And then some of the parts in the first half of the show are super funny and people are laughing and clapping.”

      Somewhat surprisingly, looking back on the whirlwind of the last year, Pite recalls mostly joy in touring and performing this work that looks so unflinchingly at death.

      “Of course it can be challenging, but it feels necessary and important,” she reflects, “because it is such a beautiful show. It’s not just a descent into doom; it’s always brought us a lot of joy, right up to today.

      “I’ve always taken my lead, and everyone has, from Jonathon,” she adds. “He stays open and he stays curious and he stays with it.”

      Jonathon Young reached into deep personal trauma to create Betroffenheit.
      Michael Slobodian

      Betroffenheit has come at a time of incredible international demand for Pite’s work. Her recent gigs have included Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue for Belgium’s Royal Ballet of Flanders, a full evening of pieces at Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance, and a mounting of her Plot Point by Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. This fall she’ll create another new work for the Paris Opera Ballet at its legendary Palais Garnier (where her The Seasons’ Canon shows again in a mixed program in May and June).

      Amid all this, Pite is also getting ready to create a new work with Young and the same creative team behind Betroffenheit—including her partner, set designer Jay Gower Taylor, and costume designer Nancy Bryant, as well as many of the performers. It’s a chance to explore more of the theatre/spoken text/dance mashup that made Betroffenheit so distinctive.

      “We’re working with a voice-over recording of a play Jonathon has made,” explains Pite, adding they’ll flesh it out at the Banff Centre for the Arts. “We did it with eight actors, and that will form part of our show’s soundtrack, and we’re working with ways of expressing the text through the body.”

      But for now, Pite is feeling the extra buzz that comes from being able to bring Betroffenheit back here after its adventure abroad. Its DanceHouse shows sold out in February 2016, and it has sold out here again this year.

      “It’s powerful sharing anything with your hometown,” Pite says. “I get very, very nervous and feel exposed and vulnerable. But it’s extra special.”

      DanceHouse presents Betroffenheit at the Vancouver Playhouse from Wednesday to next Saturday (March 14 to 17).