Photos – Michael Slobodian
Plato famously complained that art was inferior to life because all it could do was imitate it. He obviously hadn’t seen Betroffenheit. Here, art shows its capacity, by a depth of penetration impossible by any other means, to make sense of the senseless, and transcend the lived experience of the most profound suffering. “Imitation” is a very weak word with which to talk about this.
The word “Betroffenheit” indicates, among other things, the consternation that someone experiences when he is a witness of a tragedy that happens to other people. In this show that event was an appalling personal tragedy involving the death of family members, and its effect was the mental breakdown of him who witnessed it. This person was Jonathon Young, who after his recovery created the drama Betroffenheit in collaboration with the remarkable and innovative choreographer Crystal Pite. It was performed by the Canadian Electric Company Theatre, a group of five theatre artists who can do absolutely anything. But the really staggering thing was that the protagonist was played by Jonathon Young himself.
The text of the drama consists of a few sentences to do with Jonathan witnessing the disaster and being unable to do anything about it. These sentences appear first in a fragmentary, incoherent form, and during their repetition in different contexts, different choreographic distillations of intolerable grief, become more and more coherent, leading if not to a resolution, at least to a “coming to terms” with what happened. This process of repetition, which accompanies every act of grief as the scenes replay themselves ineluctably in the mind of the sufferer, imbued the stage action itself, bits of scenes being constantly re-danced in different ways. Further, the repetition was enacted by the very fact that the main actor was playing himself, going over and over the same events, the same performances…which was art and which was life? The other dancers wove seamlessly between personages in the drama and expressions of Jonathan’s inner turmoil – indeed the fact that I couldn’t always tell when they were internal or external figures seems to me an expression of the confusion in a mind practically destroyed by grief.
When the drama started, with snake-like wires threateningly uncoiling themselves, I thought, what I am doing reviewing this work? A classical musician, I am also reasonably conversant with theatre though by no means an expert, but I am hopelessly at sea with dance. Then I thought, well there are probably other such people in the audience, and in my readership, whose reactions might chime with mine. But as the drama proceeded, especially in the second act, where the techniques shifted slightly from physical theatre to dance, and the sentences became more distinct, I realised that there was a dimension to the way the piece was structured that I could only describe as musical, and where I just might be able to say something valuable. Repetition, which was the essence of the text structure, is of course how all music is structured. And there seemed to me to be a realisation that, coming out of the terrible intensity of the dancing, Jonathan (as author) and Crystal could find a resolution only in musical terms. I don’t mean by this that the theatre music, brilliantly composed and integrated by Owen Balton, was the locus of this resolution, although one of the musical passages, previously heard incomplete, closed the drama by finding a major chord. I mean that the show itself, taken as an entity, relied on synthesis not by its text, and not even by its dance, but by allowing the repetitions to somehow complete themselves in a way analogous to that by which a recapitulation and a coda mysteriously complete a piece of music.
This amazing piece of physical theatre/dance is an act of enormous courage on the part of Jonathan Young. It not only imitates life, it penetrates the emotional heart of a terrible trauma, re-enacts it, and universalises it in one of the most direct acts of catharsis I have ever seen.
Part of the 2017 Adelaide Festival
Electric Company Theatre and Kidd Pivot
Created by Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young
Director Crystal Pite
Venue: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
Dates: 3, 4 March 2017
Tickets: $30 – $79
Bookings: BASS 131 246 | adelaidefestival.com.au