Electric Theater

Betroffenheit-Sadler’s Wells – May 31 2016

How do you tell the story of a breakdown? You can either, Wozzeck like, show a man put upon, defeated, and we observers watch this downfall, or one can, as in this work, journey into a mind, to feel, to see and hear pain and trauma.

And “what a mind was here overthrown”, and what minds here elevate that to a work of substantial poetry. Crystal Pite, Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre collaborate to bring one of the strangest yet powerful things I have seen on a stage.

Straight confessional would be boring, and best left to a psychologist’s couch. Stage movement here, whether acting or dancing, has to be metaphor for suffering. And there is, one gathers through the fractured, murky lines of text, in the dance, voice, music –  as one picks one’s way through a narrative anything but clear – suffering.

Why though? Why suffering? A little background reading after the show reveals it is co-creator Jonathon Young‘s catharsis, or rather, re-suffering. An act enacting pain as if to come to terms with it.

Part one is the phantasmagoria. The scene is set in what appears to be a sanatorium. It is peopled by non-sequitur and oddities.A  parody vaudeville act, Brazilian music and show girls, a spangly “King of Comedy”-esque duo (Young and the fantastic Jermaine Maurice Spivey) comes out to entertain. A tap-dancer (David Raymond) menaces Young. Playback voices cut up and judder and assault the ear.  Cartoon-esque nightmare figures grapple protagonist Young. A clown-woman (Tiffany Tregarthen, I believe) pushes a box onstage. Young climbs into it. She pushes it around a bit. It later comes back onstage to haunt him. Is this where he represses his pain? Or where he hides?

Dancers mime in grotesque over-the-top gestures to piped in dialog. Young engages in duologue with another speaker, perhaps himself. The speaker offers psychological babble to console him. There was much talk of “self directed, self percolating” outcomes, starts which became perpetual starts and hence fail. The duologue entangled in itself, chasing its own foundation and tail, and failing. Guilt strangles sense.

A philosopher said once “Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter”. Nietzsche perhaps never thought laughter in the dark would be so chilling as here. Betroffenheit’s comedy only pushes alienation into one’s face. This is desperate life, despair from the depths of pain, laughter as defence.  Would that there was more laughter here, but it is not its remit. The comedy is levity, acutely judged, balanced and paced.

In performance and conception, Betroffenheit is resolutely post modern, Post-Bauschian. Bausch has involuted, shared insular worlds, festivals/spectacles of the absurd. Pite’s vision by contrast is here, the opposite: an engagement with a self: direct anxious questioning, a mind grappling with itself.

The insight into a mind fracturing then is painful, intensely so. Recursive, repeated patterns of recorded speech suggest nightmare of entrapment. This is not so much regression, as obsession. This is postmodern theatre and dance, and feels like it. It doesn’t so much pose question as demand them from the viewer. “Who is this man?” what’s happened to him?” and too a bit of “what’s going on?”. This is theatre of aporia.

After the havoc and chaos, the human spill of part one, came part two, which was here, almost pure dance. Here Pite’s dance language came to the fore, and Kidd Pivot thrilled. Jerky movements, group “strobing”, incredible synchronicity. The register was throughout kinetic, frantic, clamorous, exactly as the title of the piece connotes. Nuances of rictus crept in, disconcerting to watch.

Individual solos were graceful, articulate in design and expression, and group work was eye popping, the more so because I believe Mr Young has no formal dance training!

He was chased by the other dancers, pulled about as if a plaything, caught in time-freezing falls and poses, thrilling to see. Notable here was the animalistic trembling from all: palms on the floor, biceps quick-quivering in unison. Uncanny, un-human, almost. Young aped the same movement and was later left onstage alone. Head bowed, scampering on the floor slowly, he became devoid of face and thus became only form, movement: how quickly the mind forgets identity.

Spivey’s final solo showed off his remarkable skills, hints of “popping”, his facility with strobing, micromovements, and too, later, virtuoso tumbling and twirls and spins. All was mesmerising. One wonders, given Sellars’ same utilisation of dancers with street style as their focus, if similar dance forms might find poetic expression in contemporary theatre? I am thinking in particular of jookin’, whose grace and dignity or motion could lend grace and comment to anything which could so utilise it*.

Right near the end all that consoles Young is an embrace in the hush. Throughout, there has been depersonalisation, disorientation. Here, a moment of humane tenderness. Redemption, almost. One felt that in this quiet undisturbed by music, movement, audience noise, the moment would last for ever.

Watching Betroffenheit, one thinks of new syncretisms, new developments within the performing arts. It is thrilling to see the interstices of drama, comedy and dance create something so refreshingly whole. And technically, what a tour de force of theatre. Tom Visser‘s lighting demands precise cues and fast changes, a real workout I imagine for any technician. Nancy Bryant‘s costuming, 70’s sequins, showgirl feathers, modern-wear, nightmare-wear, must merely hint at her versatility and imagination. Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe‘s sound and composition underpin the whole strange work, sound in particular being used to amplify stage drama.

Granted, more could be done perhaps to explicate the meanings within the piece, especially in the first half. Its narrative, for those of us with no programmes was – purposefully? – opaque. This was less story than experience, sound and fury suggesting much. Nevertheless, it presented trauma from which one cannot turn away and, confronts us with dance of striking power of concept.It unsettles, and in art, sometimes that is to be applauded as it was here, by those who, realising what they had witnessed was brave and beautiful, cheered and applauded.




*which is not to suggest these art forms “appropriate” it, merely that it deserves wider audiences, and the best way to do this might be to couch it in things people will go to see.