By Wesley Babcock
I saw Betroffenheit, from Jonathon Young and Crystal Pite, just over two years ago. I left the theatre with a feeling of profound satisfaction after watching something mesmerizing and beautiful created by artists at the absolute top of their game, and with my mind spiralling through all the things it could mean. Two years later, the spinning has slowed down enough that I can ask some questions to Jonathon Young, as he takes a break from the launch of the show’s latest tour in Vancouver this week.
Young says that my feelings at the end of the show are just what he hopes an audience will feel. “I want them to leave feeling intrigued by the forces inside it [the piece] and inside themselves, and I hope it makes them reflect back on their own lives,” he says.
This show is a deeply personal creation for Young, and he is amazed at how it continues to resonate with audiences around the world, despite language and cultural differences. I think it’s because the questions Betroffenheit asks are universal—the facing of the things inside us that we don’t want to acknowledge, and the lengths to which we go not to face them. When I find myself in a situation like this, I know that I become cruel, that I become more scared, that I pretend even harder than ever that everything is OK. These situations become the things that separate us from one another and build walls and ideological bubbles and resentment. Betroffenheit strikes me a bit like the compassionate friend who tells you that you’re not alone. That someone else is dealing with the same questions. That the dark place isn’t as scary as it seems. That you can make it through.
Young is honoured to participate in the public experience that this private story has become, and loves to watch the effect this piece has on people from Taipei to Germany. He believes that part of the reason that the piece is a visceral experience for the audience is that it’s still something the performance ensemble feels challenged by. The fact that “every time we do it we need to be really on point to survive it and to do it at the level we want,” continues to make Betroffenheit exciting to perform.
You may have gathered that this is not your typical stage play. There’s no living room or kitchen sink. There’s no jilted lover. There’s no shipwreck. There is a synthesis of dance and theatre and design that tells a universal story of addiction, trauma, and the “working through” of our individual and collective demons.
“Every time we do it we need to be really on point to survive it and to do it at the level we want.”
The show has all the flare of a big budget Broadway musical, but with a more intense concern about pushing the boundaries of storytelling and form. In Betroffenheit, the set moves and changes in incredible ways, not because the setting has changed, but because the set itself has come alive. The movement is motivated by the narrative of the piece, not by some practical mundane “they’re outside now” thing. This piece uses every element, from the words, to the set, the lighting, the movement, and the sound design, to tell a complete story none of these elements could accomplish on their own.
No doubt this stems from the deeply collaborative creative process between Jonathon Young and Crystal Pite, who worked together for months honing the text and movement. “It was important that the abstraction is affecting change, and the words are affecting the dancers’ bodies like a score in a musical piece,” says co-creator Young. Eventually, the dancers came into the room and another layer of organic development was added as their improvisational movements were honed into choreography through Pite’s creative process.
“We were fascinated by the culture and the people outside the theatre, because the whole cultural context was one where we felt displaced, and yet we were sharing this personal thing that resonated with them. They were fascinated by us equally.”
The company was recently in Taipei, performing at the National Theatre when something struck Young about the beauty of the “blurred line between art and reality” that comes from experiencing this piece. “I’m in awe that it is a performance that has the ability to cross cultural boundaries. We’re in Taipei, the theatre is like a temple; it’s surreal to perform there. We were fascinated by the culture and the people outside the theatre, because the whole cultural context was one where we felt displaced, and yet we were sharing this personal thing that resonated with them. They were fascinated by us equally.”
I have watched more than 150 plays in the two years since I’ve seen this show, as a member of the audience, worked on the production team for 15 or so, and produced three myself. Of them all, Betroffenheit sticks in my mind as the one I most wish I had made. The one I would see again, given only one to see again. To me, this is what theatre is about.
I can’t recommend seeing Betroffenheit strongly enough. If you missed it last time, go thank the NAC for bringing this show back to Ottawa and giving you a second chance.
Betroffenheit is playing at the National Arts Centre (1 Elgin St) for two nights April 6–7, 2018. Tickets cost $25–86 online and at the NAC Box Office. $15 Live Rush tickets are available for anybody between the ages of 13 and 29.