Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young, Betroffenheit

Posted: June 6th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young, Betroffenheit

Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young, Betroffenheit, Sadler’s Wells, May 31

Tiffany Tregarthen and Jonathon Young in Betroffenheit (photo: Michael Slobodian)

Tiffany Tregarthen and Jonathon Young in Betroffenheit (photo: Michael Slobodian)

‘The accident happened. It has happened. It’s happened’. The past is irrevocable and unchangeable. The past can loop a person in a repetitive rewinding of backward motions; there is no escape. In Betroffenheit, a collaboration between choreographer Crystal Pite and theatre director and actor Jonathon Young, this space of no escape is ‘the room’ — the site of trauma. Based on Young’s own experience, the work deals with horror, pain, loss and guilt. Trauma is not an easy subject to engage with, not so much because of its resistance to representation but rather because of its pervasive presence in our culture. Overused and glamorized, trauma has lost meaning and with it the connotations of the experience it designates. As a result, the risk for any artist wanting to engage with the subject is either that of slipping into self-confessional indulgence or in facile generalization or, even worse, universalization. Pite and Young resist these pitfalls. Betroffenheit does not steer from ‘the event’: it is focused on a moment in time and on the individual locked in its repetitive occurrence, constrained within the claustrophobic narrowness of pain and loss. There is no generalizing. It is one man’s experience — performed by Young himself — that isolates and is isolating: ‘The accident happened. It has happened. It’s happened’, repeats Young in his disjointed re-telling of the drama that unravels in his mind and on stage. ‘The room’ cannot be shared. The shock and the encounter to which the title Betroffenheit alludes are his fears, unbidden memories, guilt and survival. They are the ghosts that unremittingly draw him back to that space where the past repeats itself and attempts to get to terms with it are futile. Indeed, as trauma theorist Cathy Caruth observes, belatedness and incomprehensibility are at the heart of the traumatic event and its repetition opens up realms beyond what can be known.

Performatively, Betroffenheit enters such a space of belatedness and incomprehensibility by drawing on and weaving together a broad range of references from art, literature, theatre, psychology, film and dance. The first half is set within a narrow perimeter of false walls, clinical and industrial at the same time that are open on one side − ‘the room’. Voices intrude, personages enter it and lure Young into a disturbing vaudeville acting out, sinuously performed by Pite’s five dancers. The narrow space of ‘the room’ temporarily blasts open into the event — reminiscent of Hollywood’s disaster movies — then the room closes again onto its painful repetition. Pite and Young have set in motion what Jacques Rancière refers to as ‘a complex set of relations between the visible and the invisible’. This unleashes a chain of images, words, and movements that alter each other to convey ‘the sensible texture of an event’ whose forms are disquieting, grotesque, and nightmarish.

This motion continues in the second half, though the register changes. A spotlight defines the empty stage with its single pillar as a rarefied cone of incomprehensibility. If words and strident visual frames seemed to overtake the first part, dance regains its centrality in the second. Visual references are implicit in the moving tableaux of a Renaissance pietà and deposition reminiscent of the suffused rendering of Bill Viola’s slow-down video reenactments of The Passions (2000). Breathing becomes the sensorial punctum (in Barthes’s sense) on which the affective tension of Pite’s choreography unfolds. And breath carries the emotional movement of the work to its conclusion. The event happened, has happened. The event cannot be escaped nor understood. There is no resolution, only the possibility of acceptance. In the final solo by Jermaine Spivey, the spasmodic dance macabre of compulsive fears of the first half mutates into a fluid quietness of motion and emotion which wave through and across each other.

A question remains: where do Pite and Young position the audience in relation to the work? The first half of Betroffenheit makes subtle use of an alienating effect reminiscent of Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. Recorded applause cruelly marks the re-enactment of trauma. We are uncomfortably reminded of the spectacle and voyeurism with which horror is so often endowed. In the second half the carefully lit pillar whose shadow lengthens over the auditorium gestures towards another position for the spectator, that of attentive, intelligent and sensitive observance.