The title of choreographer Crystal Pite and actor Jonathon Young’s extraordinary piece of dance-theatre, Betroffenheit, is a German word that refers to a state of affectedness, concernedness, a sense of being confronted with sadness to the point of stasis. A profound real-life sadness lies at the centre of this work. In 2009, Young’s teenage daughter and her two cousins died in a fire in their holiday cabin. He tried and was unable to save them.
Betroffenheit is an expression of Young’s grief and guilt in the aftermath of this appalling event and it’s easy to recoil, in theory, from the notion of staging such experience, transmuting individual tragedy into two hours of movement, words and music for public consumption. But the specifics of the horror endured by Young are never mentioned. Instead, Betroffenheit is a vital, brutal, bravely unflinching exploration of psychological pain, deep depression and addiction; of the world’s random cruelty and our response to it.
It begins in a dank, gloomy quasi-industrial room with Young hunched against one of its yellowing walls. Crashing, keening sounds are stretched into a soundscape. Electrical wires creep of their own accord and there’s a telephone and an amp – objects that promise and deny connection and communication. It’s clear that this space is its own tormented echo chamber, the private hell of Young’s mind in the aftermath of appalling trauma. Young’s onstage voice competes or converses with a recorded version – we seem to hear looped fragments of discourse between therapist and analysand, frantic assertions that urge him to relive what’s happened, to retrieve meaning or explanation, to identify who or what ‘the user’ is.
There are repetitions and stutters. Where language falters, movement expresses what the former cannot. Five dancers scuttle in, hoofing vaudeville performers with ashen greasepainted faces, sinister spangles and a trashy, colourful appeal. The insistent rhythms of a tap dancer, the brassy, swirling glamour and vacant smiles of a salsa couple, the creeping mawkishness of a clown – all represent for Young the tempting succour of drink and drugs. When he gives in he’s reborn as a cheesy entertainer in a tawdry blue suit and 70s wig (“I’m baaaaaack!”), cross-talking with a loose-limbed partner who temptingly offers ‘epiphany’ and ‘insight’ like so many pills.
The second half begins with a section of pure movement, the five dancers now dressed in plain grey. Pite’s physical language is deeply humane; one of galvanic force, of action and response, one in which the bodies’ boneless fluidity is not a show of technique but an undulating sea of struggle, touch and relief. The dancers pitch themselves towards the darkness before contracting back into a huddle — attached, a trembling and twitching, imperilled organism. There’s no epiphany here, no glib message or moral for Young to find. Instead, there’s just the excoriating effort of retrieving memories of the lost from psychic wreckage. A solitary dancer grasps and forces his knees into motion, supporting his own haunches. He opens his jaws and a silent chasm of sorrow opens up before us. Still, he moves. Perhaps in this process it’s possible to read a glimmer of hope, the transformation of life into art.
Betroffenheit is a rare and wonderful achievement; not spectacle, not product, but a profoundly imaginative, sad and humorous exploration of agony and loss, of meaning and its absence. It reminded me of the thing Virginia Woolf once said about life and ‘art’: “Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”
For more information on Betroffenheit at Sadler’s Wells, click here.