March 14-17 Vancouver Playhouse
Virtuosity and Absolution in Betroffenheit
Alex Lazaridis Ferguson
[Note: This review originally appeared in RealTime Arts after the 2016 performance of Bettrofenheit in Vancouver]
Bettrofenheit. It means something like: trying to express the inexpressible.
The curtains part to reveal what looks like the interior of an abandoned warehouse. Streaks on the wall. Opaque windows on swinging doors. Electrical boxes. A massive black girder drives from ceiling to floor. Fluorescent lights cast a sick glow.
Several piles of thick, coiled electrical cables sit next to the girder. An ominous sound — part storm, part wrathful static — descends upon the theatre. The cables slowly uncoil like sentient plastic snakes. They crawl across the floor and up the walls. I feel an overwhelming sense of dread in every part of my body.
I know I’m not alone in this. And so here comes the full disclosure. Bettrofenheit is about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and addiction. It’s about surviving unspeakable trauma. There’s no particular trauma specified but many of us in the audience know that performer Jonathan Young of the Electric Company has sourced his own story. And we know the mind breaking details. Although these are left unnamed it’s easy to connect the dots. Some people, much closer to Young than I, spend the entire show weeping. With effort I’m able to pull out of the emotional morass and take Bettrofenheit in as a work of art.
Young is revealed in the corner of the room, head between knees. A pre-recorded internal dialogue begins. The room is Young’s fractured consciousness and his inner voices are distributed throughout it. They speak from a fuse box, an intercom or a door. Every part of the room has a voice. It’s always Young’s voice. His mental state is described in psycho-therapeutic terms. One voice speaks with the authority of a therapist. Other voices answer back, agreeing, protesting and negotiating. There’s frequent reference to a room holding “the victims,” and an attempt, a failed attempt, to rescue them.
Cabaret-type figures appear on the periphery. They gradually make their way into Young’s warehouse of the mind. In keeping with the Electric Company’s nostalgic penchant for late 19th and early 20th century entertainment genres (vaudeville, flea circus, melodrama, Busby Berkeley, Film Noir), the figures become his showbiz alter egos. They represent his craving for escape from the pain of trauma (and to be clear, I’m speaking of Jonathan Young as a stage persona). They lure him with the promise of putting on a show and forgetting it all. This makes Bettrofenheit an intriguing mix of virtuosic dance-theatre and ritualized therapy. Young seems to be having it both ways: he gets the drug — the show (referred to as an “epiphany”) — and he gets it as therapy. Where traditional therapy has perhaps failed him, an audience might still offer absolution.
The “show,” the addictive drug, emerges as a series of routines performed by Young and the sublime dancers of Kidd Pivot. The main performance score is Young’s pre-recorded voice. Director-choreographer Crystal Pite has the dancers lip- and body-sync it with astonishing physical articulation. Add to this the genre numbers — a tap routine, a vaudeville duet, a salsa — and we get a sense not only of the spirit-crushing effects of PTSD but the attraction of the colourful performance world Young can’t help turning to in moments of weakness. Young is a precise, articulate mover and speaker.
The dancers embody these traits and take them to a higher level. Where Young is nimble, his main alter ego Jermaine Spivey positively floats, seemingly able to independently lever and pulley any part of his face and body. Where Young is flexible, Tiffany Tregarthen is absolutely plastic, molding and unmolding herself to any available surface like a rubber doll. Where Young has pizazz, David Raymond’s self-choreographed tap routine exudes menace.
After a while though, the routines and internal monologues start to feel like mere accumulation. Like going over the same ground. There’s a logic to this. The victim can’t help returning to the source of trauma. But it feels to me like a writer and director trying too hard to achieve a predetermined dramatic goal. Pite has discussed learning about the three-act structure from Young, and of plotting out Bettrofenheit with sticky notes on a board. How the creative process flowed between wall chart and studio improvisation I’m not privy to, but the dramatic structure of Bettrofenheit doesn’t grow organically from the moments. It lacks the dramaturgical nuance of a practiced playwright. I can see the manufacturing of each plot complication, the obstacles thrown in the protagonist’s way, and the attempt at an incremental ascent to a climax, turning point and resolution.
Despite the laboured attempt at a three-act story structure, Bettrofenheit’s inventive choreography and scenographic turns add up to compelling viewing.
And then there’s an intermission. What comes after it is both puzzling and predictable.
Most of the set is gone. Only the massive black girder remains. The girder is a performance unto itself. Designer Tom Visser casts a light and shadow play around it that projects mental force and impenetrable mystery. If we are still witness to Young’s mind, it’s something we can never really come to know. Nor can Young. So far so good.
Then the dancers dance—fantastic dancers dancing fantastically. But to what end? It’s all very familiar. As in Dark Matters (2009), another Pite piece considered “theatrical” (in that the set played a dramatic role and elements of Japanese bunraku were approximated) and in which the post-intermission stage was cleared of set elements, we are left with what might be called social-group dynamics dance. Half a dozen performers cluster and uncluster. Individuals are pushed out and pulled back in to the group, they lift one another, or run in a kind of slow motion glide. I guess this is Pite’s signature style but I wonder if it represents a lack of confidence, a compulsion to re-assert her dance credentials by removing set elements that distract from the human body.
That’s my best guess. The earlier set/dancer interactions made for surprising physical combinations. Now I feel like I’m watching a different piece, a choreography that is very similar to what I’ve seen in many Pite shows over the past seven years. Where did the vaudeville figures go? The dancers now wear drab dance sweats. I suppose they’re meant to represent the truth of depression and addiction.
In addition, the lights, sound, and dance are all doing the same thing—conveying a sense of tragedy. No longer a dialogue between conflicting inner voices, the questions at the center of the work are gone. I’m left to contemplate a choreographic style, a type of dancer training, the bombastic soundscore that is telling me exactly how to feel. I start to wonder if this can really be called contemporary dance. I muse about the influence on Pite of companies she once belonged to — William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt, Ballet BC. I think about the contemporary ballet aesthetic running through her work. I conclude this is indeed contemporary dance but at the conservative end of the spectrum. I think about the presenter, Dance House, and its bias toward the same contemporary ballet aesthetic. It has something to do with ballet training equaling “real” dance. It starts to feel like a cultural night out rather than a vital engagement with art.
I try to erase the second act from my mind and get back to what was powerful about the first. It returns. The trauma, as embodied by the dancers and Young, haunts me for days to come