Betroffenheit is a German word that refers to the state of shock that follows an unspeakable trauma. It is also the name of one of the most stunning, lauded pieces of theatre to come out of Canada in recent memory. Co-created by Vancouver-based choreographer Crystal Pite and Toronto-based playwright Jonathon Young (who also starred in it), Betroffenheit got four stars and a rave (“rare and staggering”) from Martha Schabas at The Globe and Mail. International reviewers lauded it. In Britain, it won a prestigious Olivier Award for best new dance production, and Mr. Young won the Critics’ Circle National Dance Award for outstanding performance in modern dance.
So the return of Ms. Pite and Mr. Young with a new full-length collaboration is one of the most anticipated arts events of the season. Revisor has its world premiere in Vancouver on Feb. 20 (after an avant-premiere at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, where the creative team worked on it).
Revisor’s subject matter is very different. Betroffenheit was built on pain, delving into the darkest places.
The main character in Betroffenheit is a man (Mr. Young) who has lost his way after a horrific event. This was devastatingly personal, conceived following the death in a fire of Mr. Young’s daughter Azra and two of her cousins, Fergus and Phoebe Conway, in 2009. I don’t know what percentage of audiences knew this going in, but if you did, it made for an even more powerful, if harrowing, experience. People wept openly as they stood for emotional, elongated ovations.
“It was beautiful to feel the resonance of what we were doing; feel those echoes bouncing back to us and feeling like people were moved and affected and we were connecting the way we wanted to connect with other humans,” Ms. Pite says when I asked during an interview how the accolades for the work affected them.
“And we had something to live up to," Mr. Young added in the same interview. "It’s not like you’ve put out an album that everyone loves and there’s the album and everyone gets to play that thing. It’s like we had to play it every night. It was something to live up to and also to respect and honour and try to maintain; keep it filled with life, but allow it to change.”
Neither of these artists is a stranger to acclaim. Ms. Pite, artistic director of her own company, Kidd Pivot, is an internationally renowned, award-winning choreographer who has been commissioned by companies across Europe and North America. Mr. Young, a co-founder of the Vancouver-based Electric Company Theatre, is a prolific theatre creator and award-winning actor. He too feels gratified by Betroffenheit’s reception. “It felt like it brought a lot of light into the world, dare I say it.”
They do not see Revisor as a reaction to or a pushing against their Betroffenheit experience, but as an extension of it.
Revisor is not at all autobiographical. Its inspiration was an essay Mr. Young read years ago in Yale University’s Theater magazine. It was about Yale students going to Moscow to restage Russian theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold’s 1926 production of the 1836 farce The Government Inspector (Revizor in Russian). In Nikolai Gogol’s story (which, according to legend, was based on an anecdote Pushkin told Gogol), a lowly civil servant arrives in town and is mistaken for an important government inspector the townspeople have been expecting to investigate political corruption.
After Mr. Young wrote his script – vastly reduced from Gogol’s original – it was voice-recorded by nine actors, creating a sort of radio play. Sound designers took that audio and created the soundtrack for the show. Then dancers – Kidd Pivot’s dancers are phenomenal – were each assigned characters to whose text they dance. “They embody the language and the text and the personality of each of those characters,” Ms. Pite explains. “It’s … as if the performers are lip-synching but they’re lip-synching with their entire bodies.”
During the interview, Mr. Young quoted a sentence he’d read recently: “The fool is the precursor to the saviour, because only he can speak the truth.” He couldn’t remember where he had read it, but it certainly resonated. “There’s this conversation in the piece between language and the body or language and action and what happens to the body, what happens to humanity, when the language that we inhabit is so deeply corrupted and has become so false and so untrustworthy; how do we pierce through that? And it seems like we see that constantly now. That it is the fools, the jokesters, the comedy, the farce, that is able to puncture it and – “
“Reveal truth,” Ms. Pite offered.
“Reveal truth through this kind of backward way,” Mr. Young continued.
They do that a lot: finish each other’s sentences. There is a strong, fertile intellectual connection to this collaboration. Between Betroffenheit and Revisor, Ms. Pite and Mr. Young made a one-act, approximately nine-minute work together for Nederlands Dans Theater – The Statement, which was shown at the Kennedy Center in Washington last year.
Given the subject matter of Revisor – incompetence and corruption in government – and the concern Mr. Young expressed about untrustworthy information, I had to ask whether real-life events had inspired Revisor, which has been in development for about two years.
The answer was a hard no. But. …
“Of course current events have an effect on all of us and they’ve been a source of inspiration and a great talking point throughout the process. It definitely fuels our urge to work with this material and to pose the questions that we’re posing. Yeah, we definitely are motivated and inspired by what’s happening,” Ms. Pite said.
"I’d say it’s why we’re doing it,” Mr. Young added.
But they were careful to say they are not pointing at any particular person, issue or event.
Ms. Pite and Mr. Young were in a dance studio that morning for the interview; it was a Saturday and Mr. Young had two performances ahead of him that day for the Electric Company show The Full Light of Day.
It was about a month before Revisor’s avant-premiere in Banff, and there was still so much to be worked out. But if they were tired or worried, they did not show it.
“There’s this wonderful rich, unknown territory in the show that we’re still wondering about and swimming in sometimes,” Ms. Pite said. “It feels like we’re in a good place of uncertainty. … I feel charged by the tension of not knowing, in a good way at this moment. In another couple of weeks, I probably won’t feel so excited about not knowing.”
Revisor is at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity Feb. 13 and 14; the Vancouver Playhouse Feb. 20-23; the National Arts Centre in Ottawa Feb. 28-March 2; Canadian Stage/Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto March 7-16; and Danse Danse/Théâtre Maisonneuve in Montreal April 3-6.