Sunday, March 18, 2018

Betroffenheit at the Playhouse

Betroffenheit, co-created by Kidd Pivot's Crystal Pite and Electric Company Theatre's Jonathon Young, was first presented as part of the Panamania Festival accompanying Toronto's Pan Am and Para Pan Am Games back in the summer of 2015. It's been touring the world to acclaim ever since. Like most in Vancouver, I first saw the show when it was presented by DanceHouse at the Vancouver Playhouse in February 2016 (you can read my original impressions here). Now, just before it embarks on the final leg of its three-year world tour, DanceHouse has brought the show back to the same venue. I was there once again last night.

In part this was practical: I've updated an essay I've written about Pite and Kidd Pivot to include a discussion of Betroffenheit; and I'll also be speaking about the work at the University of Stockholm in May. So I wanted to ensure that I hadn't made any egregious errors in my representation of the work, particularly with respect to its complex distribution of the human voice. But really I just wanted to be swept up once again by the amazing on-stage world that Pite and Young have created, and to revel in the sublime movement of the performers. On both counts I was not disappointed. Christopher Hernandez, replacing Bryan Arias (who I think is premiering a new work of his own in New York), fits into the ensemble seamlessly. Hernandez is about double the size of Arias, and so this does change the partnering with Cindy Salgado somewhat; but his solo that opens Act 2 is still a marvel of off-axis lightness and grace. Otherwise, all of the other performers seem to have grown more deeply into and with their parts; none of the movement felt mechanical or marked, and there were new expressive details in the choreography that I had the pleasure of discovering--such as the little foot wiggles that Tiffany Tregarthen does at one point when she's turned upside down in her role as the devilish monkey on Young's character's back in Act 1. Ditto David Raymond's incredibly controlled staccato work with his arms and fingers during the therapist scene. And what I'll call Salgado's breathing solo in Act 2 was deeply affecting, the simple inflation and deflation of her shoulders speaking volumes about the bodily manifestations of grief.

As the blue silk suited co-hosts of our show-within-a-show, Young and Jermaine Spivey are by now expertly attuned to each other's rhythms, both in terms of the movement and the lipsynched dialogue that they share. I remain amazed by Young's technical facility with Pite's complex choreography, but it was Spivey whom I couldn't take my eyes off of. If anything, it seems like his body and limbs have grown even more elastic and liquid; the flipping of his legs backwards over the arm of Young, or later their wave-like rippling along the floor, seems absolutely of a piece with Young's floppy manipulations of his puppet stand-in. Likewise, the speed and precision of Spivey's turns and the air he catches while flipping his body through space seem to defy the laws of physics. Needless to say, the solo by Spivey that concludes the work remains a devastatingly gorgeous summation of the archive of grief and trauma that has been passed from body to body in the preceding two hours.

Of course there were aspects of the work that I'd forgotten about, mostly relating to the text and how personally self-accusatory it is. Betroffenheit both is and isn't Young's story, but in abstracting his and his family's tragedy onto this fictional world he hasn't spared himself a nightly real-time examination pertaining to his grief and guilt. Mostly this comes in the form of subtle repetitions of phrases that are inflected with telling pronouns ("Is he at fault?," "I know she...," "They're in there," "They're in this"). But there are also just incredibly raw and open displays of pain, and the failing of others that is a consequence of this pain--as with the phone call from Mom. Somehow I'd also forgotten the desperately uncomprehending solo that Tregarthen performs in Act 2, her final pose--arms bent in front of her, as if cradling an absent child--giving me new context as to why her character is Young's chief tormenter in Act 1.

For all of the very real sorrow upon which Betroffenheit is built, the work is also filled with joy. To me, the piece is the danced equivalent of one of my favourite poems, Hart Crane's "Chaplinesque." There Crane writes about how, in the wake of all the torment and unhappiness the world throws at us, no matter how the game of life smirks at us, "we make our meek adjustments," we find "our random consolations." Because "what blame to us if the heart live on"? And it does. That was clear last night during the curtain calls. The love on stage, in the audience, and between the two was physically palpable.

What's more, everyone gets to renew the affair next year when Pite, Young, the dancers, and virtually the entire Betroffenheit creative team return to the DanceHouse stage with the world premiere of a new work of dance-theatre, Revisor. I spoke briefly with composer Owen Belton while exiting the theatre, and he said they have already been workshopping the piece at Banff. It will apparently be something of a political satire. Given the new Cold War we suddenly find ourselves in, it should be timely.


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