Imagine you are trapped in a dark room. Strobe lights flicker and coiled electric cables unfurl rising of their own volition. Exposed pipes line walls stained with traces of a struggle. Swinging doors with small smudged windows suggest this might be a warehouse. Or a torture chamber? Or a prison cell? As the lights flash a disembodied voice speaks out ‘Oh my God’ and again ‘Oh my God.’ Who is speaking? Hunched shapes creep across a hinterland of shadows beyond the room. When the lights flash you can see a body in the corner, curled tight like a fist. Is he dead?  

© Wendy D Photography
© Wendy D Photography

For the next two hours Betroffenheit explores these questions of survival and fractured identity through movement and spoken word; a catastrophic event, unnamed and unresolved, hoovers over the performance. A collaboration between choreographer Crystal Pite and actor/playwright Jonathan Young, Betroffenheit which at its simplest means ‘shock’ also conceptualises the formless, meaninglessness of dissolution in the aftermath of trauma. Drawing from personal experience – Young’s teenage daughter and her cousins were killed in a fire on a family holiday; Betroffenheit’s considerable power is rooted in an emotional conviction that transcends theatricality. It is far from clear that the range of emotions explored on stage are past-tense; consequently the piece enacts a moral imperative to ‘feel what another body is feeling.’

It sounds arduous and for some it was: on opening night a squirming couple behind me did not return after the interval. In many ways, the audience’s function is to bear witness as Jonathon Young repeatedly remembers, forgets, atones for and processes this ‘event’. Our watching becomes a form of enacted empathy. 

However, far from solemn, the piece pivots wildly from text to movement and from hysterical energy to complete collapse. Humour, whimsy and terror permeate ‘the room’ in the form of ballroom and tap- dancing demons. Dressed in pink feathered ball-gowns they slink and shake. These twirling, wriggling dancers are physical manifestations of Young’s careening mind and his temptation to purge his grief through addiction and self-medication.

© Michael Slobodian
© Michael Slobodian
 At one point Young becomes a TV host in blue sequinned lounge suit, addressing the audience to a soundtrack of manic mockery, canned laughter and applause. He says ‘Give me an epiphany’ as though ordering fast food while buzzing electric strip- lighting captures his underlining anxiety. In white boiler suits and clown make-up the dancer re-enact a tableaux dramatizing Young’s emergency room resuscitation; the dancers’ stretch out for help, their faces gurning.

Kidd Pivot are an outstanding company of dancers. Their expressivity extends beyond the traditional bounds of graceful limbs; facial expressions are integral to their performance and when they dance together the stage suddenly seems charged with ecstatic energy. Tiffany Tregarthen is insect-like as she scuttles across the stage embodying a terrifyingly primitive impulse, while Jermaine Spivey’s fragmented yet fluid movements and his dramatic range is essential: he becomes Jonathon Young’s physical extension, his sensuous antennae and his doppelganger. Young, without any formal dance training, moves as though an expert and his words are touchingly direct. As he stands alone on stage his pain is palpable. 

When ‘the room’ is finally consumed by a swelling, formless black sheet it literalises the sense of dissolution at the core of Betroffenheit. The second half shifts away from cabaret to an emptied stage and a tall column. Shards of light from above transform the space into a mine shaft or the darkest regions of the subconscious. Dressed in soft grey trousers the dancers re-enact many of the movement phrases from the first act; repetition symbolising a mind that cannot let go, cannot move forward. Slow motion, exaggerated running steps and arms waving seem like a series of distress signals–as though Young is stuck in the moment of crisis. 

© Michael Slobodian
© Michael Slobodian

Throughout, the fragmented language of recovery is used to create an elliptical space for movement. In monotone, Young repeats the phrases ‘action plan’, ‘trigger response’, ‘self-regulating.’ These phrases assume a unitary sense of self rather than the splintered mental demons that Young is struggling to marshal. At one moment Young tries to construct a sentence to describe the ‘event’ and mimes the gaps where names should be. Ultimately, rational language fails to give voice to Betroffenheit. For me, the potential for reprieve is revealed in an off-hand comment made in the second act when Young says quietly ‘They’re in this attempt.’ It is this loss, name-less and face-less, that is memorialised by movement and through the performance becomes a presence once more.