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Betroffenheit Offers Relentless Sorrow, Unending Artistry

March 14, 2017

Cal Performances

The Canadian dance-theater piece with the German title Betroffenheit, a collaboration between choreographer Crystal Pite’s Kidd Pivot troupe and Jonathon Young’s theatrical group, Electric Company, achieves the near-impossible: It presents an inexplicable, grim, and confounding tragedy without making its audience want to leave.

“Betroffenheit,” which has been translated as shock, or bewilderment, or impact, is a good word for what actor Young, onstage as the narrator, experienced when his daughter, niece, and nephew were killed in a fire at a vacation cabin in 2009. Presented by Cal Performances last Friday and Saturday at Zellerbach Hall, it uniquely combines despair and hope, mingling language and dance, of course, but also pathos and humor, stagecraft and simplicity, sound and silence, darkness and light.

The show, which your reviewer saw Friday, is divided into two parts. Part one is a bizarre drama-dance; part two, equally dramatic, is more predominantly dance. The piece opens in a barren, grayish room with harsh lighting. Young arrives and we hear via voiceover — lip-synched by Young and the five other performers — the horrible story of the fire, the shock, the exclamation “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!,” the questions from others and himself about whether he was responsible, and advice from someone — a lawyer, perhaps — to say nothing. It all becomes an endless, alarming audio and gestural loop from which neither he nor we can escape. We seem to be caught up in what has popularly and almost glibly become compressed into the words post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

And how does one get past that? Badly. He is trapped and so are we, in a storm of dance (burlesques of tap, Broadway, salsa) and theater; a cheesy emcee offering useless distractions — commedia dell’arte, minipuppets — that bring up everything he’s trying to forget.

Young’s character, via the other dancers arriving onstage, hears and tries the talking cure, drugs, alcohol, and the notion of simply trying to leave his sorrow behind and start anew. It is a bizarre cocktail of humor and despair (the dialogue with the psychiatrist is particularly wry), concern, suggestions, trial and withering error.

How can we watch? How can we look away? The conundrum owes itself to an extraordinary cast of dancers who can act with every fiber of their bodies: the brilliant, amazingly liquid-limbed Jermaine Spivey, as Young’s alter ego; Tiffany Tregarthen, as a clown figure of conscience both funny and menacing; Bryan Arias, David Raymond, and Cindy Salgado. Young is credited as the writer, Pite as choreographer and director. Set design is by Jay Gower Taylor, lighting design by Tom Visser, costume design by Nancy Bryant.

That dismal room is another character, as we see in part two. It shows up again with all its features, doors, furniture, and fixtures imprinted on a white sheet, thrust forward upon us almost as a banner. It’s a ghostly reminder of the nature of PTSD, this prison with no real escape. The dancers, now in dancewear rather than streetwear, in bleak shades of gray, move supportively and sometimes combatively in stunning, contemporary barefoot form that owes much to European modern-dance traditions, particularly Nederlands Dans Theater, where Pite is an associate artist.

The despair continues, expressed through the contours of the bodies as they catch the dim light. The purity of their dancing is a breather from the oppressive energy of part one, and afterward, when Young returns to the stage and his confreres resume their first-act garb, something feels different. There is a surcease, a change in the pulse — onstage and in the house.

There are no universal answers or cures to surviving inexplicable and unrelenting tragedy, loss, and terror. All we can draw from Betroffenheit is that art, which has allowed Young and Pite to grapple so bravely with the questions, may also embody the answers.

Janice Berman was an editor and senior writer at New York Newsday. She is a former editor in chief of Dance Magazine.