Sunday, February 28, 2016

Betroffenheit at the Playhouse

Betroffenheit, the much-anticipated dance-theatre collaboration between Kidd Pivot and the Electric Company Theatre, finally arrived in Vancouver this past weekend following its acclaimed debut during the PanAm Games in Toronto last summer. Given how widely the personal backstory to the piece's development is known in the local performance community, and given as well the professional pedigrees of its two primary collaborators, Jonathon Young and Crystal Pite, the stakes around what the work would deliver were extremely high. Happily, Betroffenheit, which was presented by DanceHouse, more than measures up, both in constellating with such intelligence and artistic rigour ideas and concepts and emotions that are more than the sum of Young's personal tragedy, and in signalling an exciting new turn in Pite's career not just as a choreographer, but as a stage director.

As Young noted in conversation with Pite at a public forum earlier in the day, the seeds of Betroffenheit came from the compulsive writing he was doing in an attempt to gain some control over the traumatic loss of his daughter. He showed these pages to Pite, hoping that she might agree to stage them. The title comes from Ann Bogart's And Then, We Act, and refers to a state of bewildered shock in the wake of an event, a space that exposes the limits of language to make sense of experience, a space of "fertile and palpable silence" where, in Bogart's words, "everything is up for grabs." A space, in other words, of theatrical imagination--one where social reality can be explored in an other, more heightened register. And, indeed, it was only after the two artists had begun collaborating that they discovered that the story they were telling was about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and related issues of addiction.

In the world of Betroffenheit these issues are translated, initially, into the hollowed out world of an empty sound stage that but for the electrical cables retreating like garden snakes before our eyes soon after the curtains part could double for an antiseptic psych ward (the amazing set is by Jay Gower Taylor). Our protagonist, Young, cowers in a corner; soon we hear him--or rather sometimes him and sometimes him in voiceover--having a conversation with himself about what he is not to do: that he shouldn't respond; a system is in place; the user only gets used. Young's interlocutors multiply, his voice distributed across any number of objects on stage--including, most compellingly, a HAL-like amplifier whose mechanical responses to Young's questions seem oddly comforting. Eventually, the narrative voice of Young's text gets distributed across other bodies as well, with Jermaine Spivey first showing up in a blue leisure suit and face paint to take over the amplifier's side of the conversation through the embodied technique of lipsynching, a choreographing of the voice that in Pite's hands is as precise and accomplished as the gestural phrasing and orchestration of dancers' limbs that accompanies it.

Spivey plays Young's alter ego; his, we might say, is the voice of Young's subconscious, or perhaps more properly, altered consciousness. For it is Spivey's role to lure Young back to the razz-ma-tazz world of "showtime," the imagined variety show that is Young's drug of choice and out of which Pite conjures spectacular tap and salsa sequences that wonderfully showcase the additional dance talents of Out Innerspace's David Raymond and Kidd Pivot regulars Bryan Arias and Cindy Salgado, respectively. Young and Spivey also engage in a charming vaudeville-style double act, the patter of their lipsynched conversation as diverting and seemingly harmless as their accompanying soft-shoe routine. However, in conversation earlier in the afternoon Pite also commented that it was important for her to make this world of showtime not just a pleasurable and joyful release--for us as much as for Young's character--but also dangerous. To this end, we get Tiffany Tregarthen, who plays a devilish and (quite literally) explosive imp, and whose fantastically physical and entangled duet with Young (who is revealed over the course of the entire piece to be a virtuosic mover) leads to what, in this "disordered system" of the stage, is the equivalent of an overdose. It takes all of the combined efforts of the other five performers to revive Young for his climactic solo number, a moving song of longing and regret that is of course not a solo at all--because his voice is lifted by a chorus of bodies, a corps, who in forming a chain of support illustrates through dance the network of sustaining relations in life that lets us know, no matter the claims we make upon them, that they have our back, that they will make sure we make it safely back down to the ground. And on this front it's been a while since I've responded so enthusiastically to Pite's penchant for tethering her group movement at the wrist. Whereas in the past the accordion-like unfurling and contraction of bodily bellows in her work has sometimes seemed like an exercise in momentum without direction, here the chains of movement seem to hint both at sequentiality (events unfolding over time) and obligation (how we are fettered together by those events)--as when, for example, the group slumps in succession against the stage right set wall, a submission to fate and to gravity that, combined with Young's song, made my heart catch in my throat.

Act 3 of Betroffenheit, which begins after a brief intermission, follows the pattern Pite has established in previous works like Dark Matter and The Tempest Replica. The ensemble, having traded in their sparkly "showtime" costumes for standard issue rehearsal sweats, deconstructs much of the action of the previous acts through pure movement. It begins with a spectacular off-axis solo for Arias, in which he spins his body around violently, like he is trying to exorcise a demon. Later he and Salgado will partner in a ghostly echo of their "showtime" salsa steps, only this time on their knees and in a desperately vertiginous bid to right themselves and prevent the other from falling over. Young, in the afternoon conversation, likened this section to the experience of withdrawal, and Pite supplemented this idea by saying that she was interested in staging various micro-scenes of rescue (a favourite theme of hers). To this end, I was very affected by the duet between Salgado and Tregarthen, who helped convey a sense of shared pain through a simple bit of gestural unison, moving their hands from knees to hips to elbows to heads through a sequence of facings, but also interrupting the cycle at different moments to place a solicitous hand on the other's body. As compelling was when all five dancers were on their hands and knees, their arms twitching uncontrollably--as if they are being collectively wracked by the DTs, or a horrible night sweat. The movement only stops when they slide a hand across to the person next to them, applying a different kind of physical pressure to still the mental anguish. If one of Pite's greatest concerns was figuring out how to distribute the narrative voice of trauma across the piece's entire ensemble, a consequent result has been how she has likewise shown how the physical symptoms of trauma can spread and be shared across different bodies.

To this end, after a couple of chimeric glimpses of showtime's lingering traces (a curtain reproduction of the set and a mysterious reappearance of a self-ambulating magician's box), the piece concludes with a reprise of Young and Spivey's earlier duet. This time, however, to echo both the voiceover (which has also returned) and the conversation between Young and Pite from earlier in the afternoon, we are made to realize that there will be no epiphany. There can only be the slow and painful practice of learning how to reengage with the world. And that starts, as Spivey demonstrates for us, by standing up on one's own, finding one's legs, putting one of those legs in front of the other, and beginning to move uncertainly into the future--a future that doesn't try to leave behind the past, but that accepts (and not without some measure of comfort) that it will always be present.


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