The art of trauma
by Leah O'Donnell
From the March, 2017 issue
"And all at once I'm disconnected from what's happening," says the recorded voice of Jonathon Young. The feeling he is describing is Betroffenheit, a German term that describes a disoriented, stupefied state of shock. Betroffenheit is also the title of his show, a theater/dance hybrid with bereavement at its core. Young's recorded words provide the narrative. These amplified thoughts are often disorganized, looping phrases, as he fights to find a way out of shock and addiction, with dancers setting the scenes around him.
As you might have guessed, this is not a girl-meets-boy, they-fight-then-fall-in-love-while-everyone-tap-dances kind of production (though there is a vicious tap number in the first act). Betroffenheit is a dark, physical, musical memoir. Young wrote the show after he lost his teenaged daughter to a cabin fire in 2009. The show opens on Young (as himself) struggling in the aftermath, though the specific trauma is never mentioned. Carrying such a tragedy to stage is a delicate undertaking, but Betroffenheit is made of connective tissue as much as scars.
The staggering two-act show is the joint effort of Jonathon Young's Electric Company Theatre and Crystal Pite's dance company, Kidd Pivot, and the pairing of physical and written languages works multidimensional wonders. Young's honesty is devastating, and Pite, the show's director and choreographer, expertly utilizes the rhythm of his spoken word. There is grace, and even humor, within the suffering.
Dancers sometimes lip-sync Young's sentences while shifting between classical and contorted movement: from contemporary gestures and sweeping floor work to frantic tap dances and twirls in feathered headdresses. Especially arresting is the demented clown in smeared makeup and a Vegas-style two-piece, whose shadow amplifies her splayed fingers and hunchback prance.
Tom Visser's arrangement of shadow and light morphs the set, designed by Jay Gower Taylor, into shadowy tableaux, from an abandoned industrial space to a nightmarish carnival to a room where Young sits inside of his own mind. Warped characters and speaking objects mimic Young's fragile mental state, pulling
the audience along on a ride that combines small streaks of clarity with pit stops into the surreal.
All along, a manic variety show is riding shotgun: a show-within-a-show representing Young's substance abuse. It seems to be his only relief, but as its glamour peels away, a destructive pulse is unveiled.
Whether Young is confined to a room, a "variety show," or a loop of his own words, his struggle remains relatable. His inner turmoil may be the catalyst, but the narrative expands continually outward, offering the common thread that trauma can trace between people. Ultimately, Young begins to navigate off his broken path--and leaves us with a sense that we can, too.
UMS brings Betroffenheit to the Power Center March 17 and 18.
[Originally published in March, 2017.]
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