Review: Betroffenheit, Sadler’s Wells

Co-created by choreographer Crystal Pite, her company Kidd Pivot, and actor-playwright Jonathon Young of Electric Company Theatre, Betroffenheit returns to Sadlers Wells following its UK premiere last year. In its most simple translation from German to English, the word Betroffenheit defines a stasis of ‘shock’, ‘impact’ or ‘trauma’. However, the term possesses a deeper meaning, one that cannot be explained in another tongue. It is an expression of the total separation between the mind and the body in an event of severe mental or physical pain. A state beyond the limits of language, it is a silent place where words cease to exist.

In 2009, Young lost his teenage daughter Azra and her two cousins in a fire on a family holiday. Choreographed by Pite, Betroffenheit explores Young’s personal trauma as a work of dance-theatre. In two acts, Young and a company of five dancers explore the cycle of chronic addiction from a place submerged deep in Young’s psyche. A room that can only be visited by him.

The accident triggered “The Room”. Designed by Jay Gower Taylor, this room has no calendar, no clock, and it cannot be found on a map. It is bare and clinical, and there is no entrance or exit. Wires snake across the floor, wriggling like nooses begging to be tied. Lights flash like magnetic resonance imaging, and both sides of the stage flare, identifying the hippocampi on either side of the brain. This is where memories are processed.

In his post-traumatic residence, Young is disconnected. Here, he problem solves with no outside support, save his mother on the other end of an old fashioned telephone. He has five constant companions, creatures with faces painted white, with eyebrows drawn unnaturally high, crimson lips and black tears falling from each eye

Together, they operate in a repetitive canon born from Young’s techniques of distraction. Agony rips through their bodies – feet tap-dance in a state of hyperarousal, and shoes are attached to melting limbs with joints that pop and lock, mouths stretched wide in a silent scream. When the malignant memory of the trauma resurfaces, the group relive the event. The six move as one, dancing to a score designed by Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani, and Meg Roe. Lip synchronisation is used throughout as Young’s own voice is pre-recorded and interspersed with haunting vibrations and a ghostly piano instrumental. As individuals, each body part moves in isolation. As a group, each isolation becomes a unit of language – a personification of feelings that cannot be explained. Highly skilled, the dancers are able to contort themselves into the most unnatural shapes; bending, so that they may not break.

The second act offers a flicker of hope as Young is released from The Room, curious, daring to contemplate recovery. Breathless, the group choke on survivor’s guilt, but slowly, Young returns home to himself, armed with a knowledge that his mind will always be burnt from the trauma, but that its structure, once unstable, can be rebuilt.

Without words, the company have created a movement language to express Young’s grief and pain. This is what makes the piece so powerful. Somehow they have managed to perform the unspeakable, making the invisible, visible.

Betroffenheit played at Sadler’s Wells until April 12.

Photo: Michael Slobodian