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A scene from Betroffenheit.Wendy D Photography/Handout

There's a Henry James anecdote that's often trotted out in creative-writing workshops. A woman asks James to read the manuscript of her novel. Recognizing the work as thinly veiled autobiography and (probably more importantly) just plain bad, James says something like "Madam, your novel has not undergone the processes of art."

It's criticism we've all been tempted to level at work that feels navel-gazing or therapeutic-by-design – art that is more in dialogue with the artist's own privately coded turmoil than it is with, say, form, theme, idea. For James, turning life into art required a "literal squeezing out of value."

Betroffenheit, a co-production between two of Canada's most renowned theatre artists — choreographer Crystal Pite and playwright/performer Jonathon Young – has its roots in the deeply personal: the tragic death of Young's teenage daughter and two of her cousins in a cabin fire in 2009. In different hands, it's possible the show might have run the course of the above-mentioned manuscript – too much wallowing, not enough transformation. But Young and Pite do more than "literally" (sic) squeeze out the value of personal experience. They split bones, suck marrow, bleed veins dry. I spent two hours feeling like a cast-iron vice was clamping down progressively on my heart.

What's left is simply devastating. I can't remember the last time I heard so much audience-sobbing at a curtain call. Betroffenheit is a harrowing representation of trauma and suffering – but it's also a stunning testament to what can be made when life undergoes a pretty strange and irreducible process – when it's turned into art.

Betroffenheit is a German word that doesn't translate well. It means a sort of confluence of shock, speechlessness, emotional stasis and confusion. This sense of ineffability is at the crux of the play, which centres on a man (Young) in the grips of PTSD. He's tortured by the memory of a horrific accident, reeling with loss, drowning in guilt. We're catapulted into the disorder of his thoughts and feelings, which find external articulation in electronic sound, light, shadow and text. (The aggressively beautiful lighting design is by Tom Visser; the unrelenting sound by Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe).

One of the key refrains is the protagonist's attempt to "come to terms" with the tragedy, and the play brilliantly interrogates the illusoriness and desperation of this pursuit. How can you come to something that exists in the past? What terms can possibly mitigate disaster?

At first, the protagonist is stuck in an industrial room where he speaks to a complex surveillance system that tries to steer him away from torturous thinking. But soon he gives into the siren call of his addiction, and the demons that had been merely crossing the stage to haunt him (a cast of five dancers: Bryan Arias, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey and Tiffany Tregarthen) become the devilish retinue of his high.

It's not all impossibly bleak. The drug-addled sequence that follows features an amazing range of very funny genre-choreography – there's a Brazilian salsa duet with a comically big feather-headdress, a chorus of Bob-Fosse-style cabaret, a cluster of tap dancers in bowler hats. These parts are eerily woven together with the uncanny logic of a dream. And the dancing is exceptional – this is a cast of classically trained dancers with no shortage of versatility or presence. At one point, the protagonist performs a duet in a blue disco-suit with his identically dressed alter-ego (Jermaine Spivey), who, like an apparition, manages an incredible sense of jointless-ness in his rolls, tumbles and leaps. When the protagonist starts to collapse under the weight of the drugs, he's propped up by the other dancers, who manipulate his body in funny and despairing ways.

Almost all the text is spoken via voiceover – a deep, echoing baritone that is lip-synched by both the male and female performers. It frequently appears to motivate the choreography, so that we watch words and phrases work their way, in staccato pulses, through the dancers' muscles and limbs. One of the most poignant devices in the play is the pared-down use of repeated words and phrases. With the dancers pinned up against a wall, the protagonist reaches a psychological impasse and his interior monologue stumbles over "oh my god." The action freezes and the phrase repeats. It's an utterly searing moment – a time when life has become so unthinkable that there's nothing to do but express incredulity over and over again.

In the second half of the play, the industrial room has dissolved into open space with a tall high beam in its centre. Pite's choreography becomes more streamlined and athletic, the soundscape conjures an electric storm, and the dancers – their mouths pulled open in silent screams – seem to struggle through a desolate war zone. Just when we think we've hit the nadir of desperation, the play pulls us further down the hole. I'd describe the aesthetic as nightmarish, but that doesn't do it justice. The sensation of being trapped, beyond hope, is altogether too real.

Betroffenheit is rare and staggering. I texted friends the following morning and told them to drop everything and go see it. There is darkness on that stage that will stay with me for a long time.

Betroffenheit continues through July 25 as part of the Panamania arts and culture festival (

Editor's note: Jonathon Young is a playwright/performer in Betroffenheit. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.

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