The German word Betroffenheit doesn’t translate easily to English. Any German-English dictionary will spit out approximations like "shocked" and "dismayed", but for a real translation, see Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young’s challenging, beautiful work by the same name. You’ll walk away with the concept seared into your memory forever.

Pite and Young's <i>Betroffenheit</i> © Wendy D Photography
Pite and Young's Betroffenheit
© Wendy D Photography

Betroffenheit digs deep and hard into Young’s own traumatic past; his young daughter, niece and nephew died a decade ago in an accidental fire. Young partnered with acclaimed choreographer Crystal Pite and five dancers from her Vancouver-based company, Kidd Pivot, to create Betroffenheit. Young, the main protagonist in this piece, also wrote the text, and Pite choreographed and directed. Together they bring a level of universality to this highly personal trauma, and communicate amply the wordless shock of grief. A lot of people will relate to that sensation of being strangely unmoored in their personal pain; cut off routine and normalcy.

Young spends the first act trapped in a fluorescently-lit industrial room, and, along with the audience, he has to piece together what has happened. Can he leave? Is he allowed? A disembodied voice speaks calmly to Young, stating the plan of action; a kind of HAL 9000 to Young’s Dave.

Young is frantic, confused, but trying his best to stay calm. “What do we say?” “What happened?” “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!” He knows that something terrible has happened but he is struggling to comprehend what it is, what it means, or how to respond.

Dancer Jermaine Spivey is introduced as a kind of alter-ego for Young; perhaps an internal voice or fraternal doppelganger. He is an extraordinary technician—but also possesses a rare emotional intelligence as a performer. Young joins Spivey and his cohorts (Christopher Hernandez, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado and Tiffany Tregarthen; all virtuosic and incredibly committed) in a tap dancing, vaudeville-style cabaret show, all gritty smiles and feather plumes and wrenching deeply-seated pain. Are they his crisis-management team, or are they luring him into further disaster? One senses that the glitz and glamour of the floor-show is simply a form of escapism, masking the pain until it comes to a head like an infected boil… which it inevitably does.

Long-time Kidd Pivot collaborator Owen Belton has provided a fine score for this piece, that alternates between glitchy soundscape and raunchy Vegas cabaret. It’s a seamless partnership. In fact, every aspect of production is spot-on, from the set design to the music to the costuming and lighting design. Everything hangs together in a delicate balance. 

The second half of Betroffenheit descends into a deconstructed freefall; the dancers appear in loose sweats, unmasked and raw. The movement vocabulary draws on strong partnering and stop-motion tableaux of grief - common stylistic stomping ground for Pite. To be honest the second half felt almost superfluous, but I understand the desire to tease out the vertiginous drop and hold it up to the light. No holds barred.  

Betroffenheit is an extraordinary piece about the beauty and sheer ugliness of survival. See it if you can.