Last spring when the Northrop marketing department was first presented with the 2016//17 Dance Season line-up, one show immediately stood out to me. Perhaps it was because of the promo photos—where our season was filled with the trademark confectionary ballets and ground-breaking contemporary performers we expected—the stark and unsettling photos of a dancing clown and asylum-like set just didn’t fit.
Or, perhaps it was because the show was explained to us as a “dance-theater hybrid,” a form that broke the mold of the traditional dance performances Northrop presented, and to a self-proclaimed theater nerd like myself, that was incredibly exciting. Or, maybe it was because this macabre mystery show was based on a true story and had an equally mysterious name: Betroffenheit. Whatever it was, I was intrigued.
Color me thrilled when learned I would have the chance to attend a performance at the Newmark Theater in Portland, Oregon last April. I had read the show’s promotional materials, learned that Betroffenheit was the product of a partnership between choreographer Crystal Pite (of dance company Kidd Pivot) and Electric Company Theatre’s Jonathon Young. I dug around some more and found that Young, a Vancouver-based stage and screen actor (who had roles in some major films over the years including The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and The Fog) began creating Betroffenheit in response to a personal tragedy (the passing of Young’s teenage daughter, nephew, and niece during a family trip).
With that knowledge, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Betroffenheit. The loss of a loved one is arguably one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome, but the sudden and tragic loss of a child is something I couldn’t begin to comprehend.
The German word “Betroffenheit” has no exact English translation. The closest equivalent we have is “consternation,” and that’s the very predicament I found myself in after seeing this unbelievable piece of theater. I had no idea how to properly and fully explain what I had seen to my colleagues when I returned to Minneapolis.
The story is not your average re-telling of the stages of grief. Nor is it the typical narrative warning of the consequences of addiction. Betroffenheit invites you into the mind of an individual who has experienced unspeakable tragedy, only to find himself battling an entirely different enemy: his own inner demons, the result of the “perfect storm” of PTSD and addiction.
The demons present themselves as characters in “The Show”—likely an allusion to Young’s profession, or from the need to go through the motions of daily life after a tragedy like he experienced.
“The Show” presents a vivid and emotional picture of PTSD and addiction, using flashy costumes, clever theatrical effects and dialogue, Broadway-caliber staging, and superb acting by the small-but-mighty cast. At times, the show used humor—a welcome break from the intensity—bringing a sense of levity to Young’s seemingly unavoidable descent into madness.
And then there’s the dance! Just like the title of the show is untranslatable, so are many of the emotions elicited throughout the performance. When words failed Young, the choreographic genius of Crystal Pite was there to carry him through.
The dancers in Betroffenheit are physically transcendent, transitioning throughout the show—first representing the menaces within Young’s troubled mind, but then evolving into the necessary evils he must defeat to reclaim his life. I found myself holding my breath during a profoundly moving dance sequence in the second act, hoping the increasing intensity and desperation portrayed through the frantic movements would break, affording him a sense of peace at the end of his journey.
In my opinion, Betroffenheit is one of the most important pieces of dance-theater performing today. It is one of those shows that stays with you, forcing you to look within and ask yourself how you’d react to the same situation. Anyone lucky enough to see this show witnesses Jonathon Young relive—during every performance—the very tragedy that stole his young family, but also the very thing that got him through his darkest times. It is beyond riveting.
As The Guardian stated, Betroffenheit is one of the “must see” dance events of 2017.
I agree. Don’t miss it.