Sadler's Wells trendiest Associate Artist, Crystal Pite did it again. Choreographed by Pite, written and performed by Jonathan Young as the main character, Betroffenheit, a hybrid between dance and theatre, plunges the audience into the cavities of the human mind. Premiered last year in Toronto, Pite and Young set themselves the difficult task of bringing on stage the aftermath of life-changigang events on those left behind. Co-created by Pite’s company Kidd Pivot and Young’s Electric Company Theatre, it blends movements and words, abstraction and narration, creating disturbingly suffocating atmospheres in a violently nightmarish, ‘Clockwork Orange’ style show on bereavement.

<i>Betroffenheit</i> © Michael Slobodian
Betroffenheit
© Michael Slobodian

Betroffenheit describes visually what cannot be spoken, the depth of pain and loss. In a desolate corner, between two doors, a man hides in darkness. In a dystopian twist, cables slither undisturbed with menacing elegance up the wall and in two opposite directions on the floor. All of a sudden, an alarm goes off and agitated electric gadgets chatter at him. It is a scene we recognize from the best science fiction films: madly blinking panel lights and the spaceship in danger of collision. Only this time, it is our own operating system, our mind, on the verge of collapse. He hurdles to disconnect all devices apart from one with whom he talks over the emergency procedure. Reassured by the sterile, mechanic loops of the non-human dialogue, he gains momentary stability. Never explicitly mentioned, if not in the programme, is the biographical source of the performance: Young’s tragic family loss. The personal experience, rewritten into a remote and abstract form, becomes accessible to those touched by a similar fate and palpably graspable to all. The title is a German term indicating the space of suspension of one’s psychological history caused by a traumatic event, a lonely and dark region from which one is desperate to escape. Addiction is one way out of it. In an unconscious auto-punishment for not having prevented the accident, we see him metaphorically joining a shabby variety show, performing absurd sketches with artificial lightheartedness. It is self-destruction that menaces the system as he is unwillingly colliding with himself. In their attempt to alienate him even more, the squalid elated band force-feed him a microphone. He is now a puppet with no control over his own body. Still there is hope out of destructive narratives as the freer dancing and the open stage of the final part suggest.

<i>Betroffenheit</i> © Michael Slobodian
Betroffenheit
© Michael Slobodian
As teeth and chewing help digestion, so words and narration assist us in making sense of the world. With trauma one is stuck in mental rumination. Young’s memories are embodied in speaking technology and chatty show business characters. Their quick movement material associates them with endless running thoughts. Fast but also somehow stuck in a pattern dictated by a pre-recorded text of broken sentences often in sync with a remarkable handling of the lights, they move back and forth as in a video editing session. The movements follow the fragmented narration of looping dialogues leading nowhere but leaving Young in the mist of a storm, pushed in different directions. There is no clear structure in the characters’ sequence as they keep coming in and out of the two doors in a stream of tatty dance numbers with only a slight repetition of elements as some scenes are taken up briefly again: a day-of-the-dead tap number, a swirling glittery and pink feathers salsa section, a double trouble tapping and singing duo. Most striking was the deceiving Pierrot, a hauntingly beautiful Tiffany Tregarthen, with a malefic grin and unnatural movements and timing. On the verge of grotesque and horror film her mischievous and a mysterious red box that was at times a dynamite detonator or a magician disappearance box that gave her a cartoon quality. When finally out of the David Lynch-like room Young was trapped in and no longer under influence of the ‘show must go on’ mentality of alienation (“I am fine”), he comes to terms with what has happened, the chatter ends and he regains stillness of the mind. The second part, much shorter, featured group sequences of more abstract dance culminating in a solo by Jermaine Spivey hinting at a more integrated existence.

Betroffenheit is a work that gets better with time. When it first hits you, it reverberates in you for days with flashes of additional meanings and nuances. There was more to it than what was performed on stage. It is not the first time that a choreographer has represented the internal landscapes of a mind (Akram Khan’s iTOMi) but Pite and Young are extremely successful in depicting the bitter taste left in the mouth by traumatic events. A successful show manages to be alive in the audience memories after the performance and so does Betroffenheit. The subtitle could be ‘betroffen’ by Betroffenheit.