Betroffenheit. The working title given to the recently announced collaboration between two of Vancouver’s most innovative companies – Electric Company Theatre and dance troupe Kidd Pivot – is undeniably difficult. Difficult to pronounce, difficult to understand; it’s a word that takes a few attempts before it rolls – still awkwardly – off the tongue.
“It’s a great word,” Jonathon Young, co-artistic director of Electric Company and writer of Betroffenheit, counters. “Right now it’s a delicious word, a mysterious word. There’s something about it that’s kind of perfect.”
Nevertheless it remains a working title, giving Young and Crystal Pite – artistic director and choreographer of Kidd Pivot – some wiggle room: The production is still in its infancy, to be premiered at Panamania during the 2015 Toronto Pan Am and Parapan Am Games.
“We have literally had three creative meetings,” laughs Young.
The collaboration came about after Young approached Pite last November. A piece he’d been working on for some time had been chosen to be the next Electric Co. project (the three key members, Young, Kim Collier and Kevin Kerr, take turns to lead a production).
It didn’t look promising: Pite explained that the next Kidd Pivot show was to be developed across the same timeline.
“So I asked what the show was about and she said she didn’t know,” Young recalls. “But she listed a few things she knew she was going to explore, and those included working with an actor, and moving into territory that both thrilled and terrified her.
“And we looked at each other and said, ‘Maybe we’re talking about the same show here.’ ”
What is decided about Betroffenheit is that Pite will direct, and Young will act. There will also be five or six dancers from Kidd Pivot on stage.
“I don’t want to get into exactly what it will be, because we don’t know yet,” Young says. “This word, betroffenheit, is about a state of shock – but a more expansive experience of shock that the English word can’t encompass.”
He came across it in And Then, You Act: Making art in an unpredictable world, Anne Bogart’s post-Sept. 11, 2001, book in which she defines it as “the state of being met, stopped, struck or perplexed.”
Young reads: “A space and time when language ceases and we are left only with an awareness of the limits of language, and the limits of what can be taken in. In this gap definitions disappear, certainty vanishes, nothing is prescribed. Everything is up for grabs in this brutal and palpable silence.”
It’s a space and time that Young inhabits. In 2009, his 14-year-old daughter and two of her cousins were killed in a fire.
“I’m in this realm of looking at myself and my inability to communicate,” he says. “Why I latched onto this word, betroffenheit, is that the quality I notice most in the writing I have done recently is its inability to add up, or to connect.
“I would look back and discover some really potent images or fragments, and I started to think that, as a whole, these fragments were perhaps painting the portrait I was after.”
He insists that the piece is not about his attempts to recover from trauma, but instead comes from trying to give voice to that experience.
“I’ve become fascinated by the notion of compulsion – which is a big part of betroffenheit or PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]: Compulsive thought, addictive behaviour and the inability to escape from fixed ideas.
“Such as, I in some way must be punished for what happened, or must continue to feel this pain, or must go over it again and again so that I never forget … these sorts of things.
“There’s drama in that, right? There’s drama in seeing bodies, performers, characters in conflict or tension with this imperative to repeat over and over again.”
And humour, too. Talking about the absurdity of compulsive behaviour, he and Pite concluded this would be an interesting notion to play with.
“When suffering reaches such a pitch that it becomes absurd, you have farce,” he says.
That’s a revelation that made for interesting grant applications: “You are talking about a piece fuelled by grief, guilt and addiction and then you say, ‘Okay, it’s a farce about PTSD.’ It’s hard to wrap your mind around.”
Pite says her own tendency is to translate ideas into the physical: “I imagine betroffenheit as a state of suspension,” she writes in an e-mail from Europe. “A body held, frozen, yet distorting, morphing, floating.”
Asked if collaborating with someone searching for their own state of mind brings any thoughts of protecting, of reining in, she writes that, at this stage in the process, “nothing should be held back.
“At this point everything is possible, everything is welcome, everything must be considered. As we move deeper into the creation … we must doubt everything, challenge everything. We know the best work contains both the personal and the universal.”
Working with Pite has given a welcome focus to his writing, Young says, steering him away from a linear drama, to thinking about how the material could be treated as movement. He’s leaving how things fit together or loop around until they get into the studio.
“How this need to be clear, to describe, to articulate – to have a central character who goes on a journey – is in tension with this inability to have that clarity is central to the notion of betroffenheit.”
He is, he says, still on his own journey, endlessly trying to make sense of the tragedy that has befallen him and the turmoil of its aftermath.
“I want to believe that the chaos of the world can be made into an act of courage and beauty. I suppose one of my strategies is to become fascinated by my own suffering, by the suffering of the world. To observe it, and try as best I can to portray it and find wonder.”