An almost untranslatable German word, Betroffenheit, captures the shock, speechlessness, and distress that follow a trauma. And, as you might expect, the new dance-theatre work with that word as its title has been an intense journey of deep trust for its creative team.
In building the piece, Vancouver dance artist Crystal Pite and theatre innovator Jonathon Young travelled into real emotionally fraught territory: the paralyzing grief Young experienced over the loss of his daughter and the posttraumatic stress that followed.
But Pite reveals that their journey was far from depressing.
“I was wondering about working with something so profound and loaded and how that would be to navigate through that progress for what has been two years now,” she tells the Straight from Ottawa, where Betroffenheit is showing before heading here for a sold-out DanceHouse run. “But what’s been amazing to me is the amount of joy in the process of creating it and just in the act of making it.
“If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from the experience, it’s an affirmation of the act of creation,” she adds. “However challenging and destabilizing it is, it always contains an amount of joy, and that’s been beautiful to discover. And I would say we really took our lead from Jonathon there. Also, right from the beginning we wanted it to contain the personal, but also zoom out and be a universal story of suffering, rather than Jonathon’s story of loss. So zooming in and out: that also helped us to manage the responsibility and the emotion.”
The resulting piece is drawing raves wherever it shows, starting with the Panamania festival in Toronto last summer. Staged by Pite’s Kidd Pivot company and Young’s Electric Company Theatre, Betroffenheit stars Young (who chose not to do interviews for this part of the tour) and a troupe of dancers, re-imagining his downward spiral as the dark, surreal variety act Showtime. Those delirious segments come complete with tap-dancing, salsa, and creepy clowns.
“One of the aspects of the show is addiction, so substance abuse is a coping strategy for our protagonist, because he is dealing with PTSD,” Pite explains. “Our stand-in for that substance is Showtime: he gives in to Showtime when he gets to a point where he can’t cope. He lets Showtime infiltrate his system and the space of the show. And it had to be seductive and very pleasing and beautiful and powerful and destructive. Each [segment] has to be more sparkly and exotic than the next.
“It starts off as this kind of relief that floods in,” she adds, “and then it becomes a more dark and malevolent presence. It twists into something malevolent where he needs more and more of it.”
It’s unusual subject matter for Pite, who is no stranger to difficult subjects, but is more likely to take on the unknowns of the universe (Dark Matters) and the epic themes of Shakespeare (The Tempest Replica). “I think if you’d asked me a few years ago if I would want to make a show about addiction, I’d have said, ‘No, I don’t understand it; it doesn’t appeal to me’ or ‘I can’t handle it.’ But a lot of my shows, even if I think I can’t handle it, I let the process teach me. And working with more awareness and more compassion and a deeper understanding, and dealing with that content through dance, made it feel more approachable.”
To understand why Young would entrust Pite with such a personal story—one so difficult to articulate—it’s important to understand that their relationship goes way back to his early days at Electric Company Theatre, one of the city’s most adventurous interdisciplinary stage troupes. Pite collaborated with ETC over the years, helping to choreograph buzzed-about multimedia shows like Studies in Motion. Both have gone on to great success in their careers, with Pite heading for three years with Kidd Pivot to an artistic residency at Frankfurt’s Künstlerhaus Mousonturm and gigs across Europe—including work as an associate artist at the cutting-edge Nederlands Dans Theater. Young continued creating shows with ETC, like Palace Grand.
Amid all this, in 2009, tragedy struck: Young and theatre artist Kim Collier lost their young teenage daughter and her two cousins to a cabin fire in B.C.’s Interior.
Pite relates that Young had started to write a solo script about his struggle through that unimaginable grief, and had approached her to direct it in late 2013. “As he described some of the ideas he had, I immediately thought of dance,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to choreograph something for Jonathon because he’s such an amazing mover and has such an articulate, clear way of movement.”
Pite, who is more used to choreographing alone (albeit always with a creative team in her atmospheric sets and music), welcomed a partner in the studio. “I was with Jonathon every day to share those difficult moments, so even in those moments of extreme doubt and fear, I was not on my own,” she says.
It’s a relationship that continues. Pite just got back from The Hague, where she created a 19-minute quartet for Nederlands Dans Theater, working with a script she commissioned from Young.
And though the choreographer’s star continues to rise, with big new works debuting with the Paris Opera Ballet and the Royal Ballet later this year, she is excited about Betroffenheit touring to places like Seattle, Dublin, and London—and about its run here, where audiences are so familiar with the two artists’ work, and with Young’s loss.
“I’m nervous and excited—so many people that know us, and it’s home for both of our companies, so it’s intense,” she says with a small laugh before heading back into tech rehearsals at the National Arts Centre. But, she adds, she’s reassured by the response so far: “It’s mostly just a relief that this show is connecting to people in the way we hoped that it would. People were moved, but also found the beauty in it. I felt like the audience was with us.”
DanceHouse presents Betroffenheit at the Vancouver Playhouse from Thursday to Saturday (February 25 to 27).