Betroffenheit – Crystal Pite & Jonathon Young: Sadler’s Wells, 31 May 2016

Shock and awesome

It's time for your ear-waxing, Mr Young. Betroffenheit gets in your brain by whatever means necessary.

Who, me? Doing something I shouldn’t? I’m in betroffenheit that you should think that.

Sometimes you’ll watch a show that you find impossible to convey just how good it is. Betroffenheit is one of those shows.

It sounds like a difficult proposition; a man has suffered a massive trauma in his life (he feels responsible for the accidental death of a group of people) and the work follows his attempts at removing the psychological scars of the event so that he can try and move on with his life. And there are some very heavy moments as he tries to come to terms with himself and his actions.

What makes Betroffenheit so effective though is that it juxtaposes that despair against a dark humour and places everything in a cloying landscape populated with surreal realisations of the central character’s conflicting states of mind. This allows space for an abundance of imaginative characters and an inventive verbal and physical language.

It begins with an oppressive repetition of confusing vocal statements set in the claustrophobic confines of an industrial room. Before long though, an extravagant group of feathered salsa dancers, a slightly frightening bunch of tap dancers and a comic Frank Sinatra at the Sands routine all burst flamboyantly onto the stage. We’re watching the subconscious take physical form and it’s bizarre but totally believable.

The central character is played with considerable authority and charm by co-creator of Betroffenheit, Jonathon Young. Around him work the five dancers of Crystal Pite’s dance company Kidd Pivot taking on all the alternate inhabitants of his mind, most of them very weird and often downright freaky. Tiffany Tregarthen is particularly disturbing as a mischievous imp who always seems to appear when least wanted but it was Jermaine Spivey who gave the most gob-smacking performance.

He made dancing like a robot look fresh and graceful. His crooner persona was suave, ironic and funny. And his spins! Whether at a hundred miles an hour or at the speed of a windmill in a pleasant spring whiff of a breeze – it didn’t matter, they were exquisite.

As a team all five (six when Young frequently joined in too) were an immensely tight unit. In replicating the quick-fire rhythmic progressions of the human voice Pite was demanding acute responses from her dancers and she got them, brilliantly. Furthermore, they provoked strong emotional reactions; around me several people were sobbing uncontrollably at the work’s resolution.

Betroffenheit is a devastatingly successful marriage of theatre, the spoken word, performance and dance. It really is magnificent.

It runs at Sadler’s Wells until 1 June 2106. Tickets can be found on the Sadler’s Wells website.

Gerard Davis

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