Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young's Betroffenheit stuns hometown crowds

Vancouver indie theatre icons team up for prize-winning dance-drama

Jonathon Young and the EMT circus. Photo: WendyD

In her pre-performance talk, choreographer Crystal Pite says Betroffenheit, the German title of her dance-drama collaboration with playwright/performer Jonathon Young, defies one-word translation into any other language. The two co-creators came upon the term in a drama theory manual by American director Ann Bogart, who describes it (more or less) as a state of post-traumatic shock that beggars all words, deeds and certainties -- a "fertile and palpable silence" in which "anything is possible -- any response, any action or inaction."

Bogart cites as an example the whole world's stunned perplexity in the wake of the 9/11 bombings. Jonathon Young knows trauma far more intimately than that, though; seven years ago he dashed into a burning cabin in an unavailing attempt to rescue his only child and two of her cousins from a flash fire. But, Pite says, in crafting Betroffenheit, Young scrupulously steered clear of an "indulgent, therapeutic" work about his own tragedy. Rather, the two-act, 120 minute dance drama is a searingly courageous -- and boundlessly inventive -- exploration of the all-too-widespread post-traumatic stress in these vexed times.

The curtain opens onto stage designer Jay Gower Taylor's set of an empty, whitewashed, bunker-like room. Composers Owen Belton, Allessandro Juliani and Meg Roe lead off with a white noise score of hollow resonances with an overlay of crackling static, well matched to the vista of blank, industrial doors, overhead florescent tubes and spotlights, a wall-phone, a floor amp, a couple of breaker boxes and socket boards.

At first we don't even notice a human figure, huddled in the corner, until all the electronics start sparking and flashing at once, barking panicked snatches of Emergency Responder dialogue. Then the room's sole occupant -- it's Young himself -- scrambles up from his fetal crouch, frantically yanking plugs and throwing switches to squelch the din.

Still panting, he struggles to calm himself with a well-rehearsed catechism: What's the point? "To stop using." Who are you? "The user." You will be called; what to do? "Don't answer." Where would it lead? "To the wrong outcome." How come? "Nothing more to be found there."

This response and rejoinder starts off just between Young and a disembodied loudspeaker voice. But presently, "the user" is joined onstage by an insouciant, slouching alter-ego (Jermaine Spivey) who lip-synchs the role of catechist. Meanwhile, beyond the cone of the spotlight, a quartet of shadowy figures scuttles across the room and out the exit door upstage. And then the wall phone rings with a wheedling invitation to come out and play. After a feeble demurral "the user" gives in.

And all at once, it's Showtime, again: a flouncy pink Vegas-style rumba extravaganza (by Bryan Arias, backed by Spivey and Cindy Salgado as feathered kewpies). Young reappears, now tricked out in a mullet wig and teal tuxedo, to MC his own inner circus. He's rejoined by his alter-ego, Spivey, in a matching tux. They shuffle through a jokey Gallagher/Sheen routine that soon degenerates into an increasingly vicious Gaston/Alphonse apres vous tussle.

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