Sadler’s Wells, London
April 11, 2017
PTSD, CBT, anthropomorphic lights and synaesthesia of movement and speech. So much autobiographical dance is self-indulgent but in Betroffenheit it is searing. The personal becomes the collective, is absorbed and becomes the personal again as it transfers from performer Jonathon Young to the audience members.
Jay Gower Taylor’s set design creates a character in itself. At once a room in an asylum, a mental trap, a street scene, a party, a cabaret stage, a television set; simple but effective devices serve to carry the action and emotion along at a gasping pace. Nancy Bryant’s costumes take us from the ordinary to Weimar cabaret via Vaudeville and Tom Visser’s lighting design turns lights into people.
It is with this that Betroffenheit opens. A yellow strip light suggests a hospital ward at night until it flashes on in synchronicity with a voice over, then transforms in our heads to the sort of light that kills insects. It is joined by other lights, stabbing at our eyes as the voices stab at our ears. They are the lights in dreams where it is at once strange and not strange that they become people. There has been a terrible accident. A disaster. An attempt at rescue. One fails, one succeeds. Over and over the trauma is replayed and re-lived.
Then the voice of healing. No wait, a fellow sufferer throwing back his own pain like urine bouncing off a wall. Drugs have drowned the pain then drowned the self. Another trauma. Another disaster. Another almost ending.
Dr Theatre comes to the rescue but no. Theatre is only the facsimile of real. It is in itself real and in itself not real. It is really happening but it is telling us that it is not really happening. It is in our heads running around and around like a carousel in a nightmare. The Paradox of Dr Theatre. Then nothing. No pain, no feeling. Numb.
Tap, tap, tap in the dark like snapping fingers, dripping water.
No, tap. Feathers. Sequins. Magicians. Lights, music, dancers. Let’s do the show right here.
No. Let’s hide. There’s a box. In you go. Now all the pain is buried. Hidden. The box doesn’t have to be opened ever again. You are buried. Hidden. Nothing’s gonna harm you. But your head goes with you. Tap, tap, tap. Drip, drip, drip.
Give him the drugs. Open the box. Dig out the pain. Shut him in the room. The room, the ever-present room from which there is no escape. The room of pain. Of memories.
Dance, dance, dance: the pain will be erased. The room will go. But the words become the dance. The sentence is an arm, punctuation is a leg, a noun is a gesture. The pain is the body. It is embodied. The room still encloses.
Then all is darkness. Darkness envelops. Come back from the crash. Bring him round, make him sing. Dig into the box. Get out of the box.
The room dissolves. Literally. It folds and crumples like Laura Catherine’s face in Munch’s Scream. The cry of nature.
One thing left in the box. One thing to examine. Then it is gone. It is here. They are here. But they are also gone.
Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young have collaborated with dancers Bryan Arias, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey and Tiffany Tregarthen to create one of the must-see performances of the year. More than just an evocation of tragedy and recovery, it is a personal act of courage that is re-enacted every time that it is performed. It is also a memorial. Young cannot return his friends to life, but in choosing to return to life himself, he has made them immortal for as long as Betroffenheit lives in actuality and in memory.