I am a firm believer in the speech-based dance. I believe dance accompanied by speech can communicate witty and wonderful things. In exploring this relationship, I have at times worried that dance as a form might be subjugated by its increasing tendency to merge with the spoken word. But Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young's Betroffenheit, which aired last night on BBC Four, may have quelled my fears.
Canadian creators Pite, artistic director of Kidd Pivot, and Young, of Electric Company Theatre, collaborated on the critically acclaimed Betroffenheit for debut in Toronto in 2015. The buzz generated was emulated on the London stage at Sadler's Wells last month. Somewhat autobiographical, it draws on Young's personal experience of tragic loss to explore the psychological impact of trauma. Young, who wrote the work, appears at its centre himself, plagued by conflicted thoughts made manifest by Pite's expertly choreographed and troublesome troupe of circus-like performers.
Crystal Pite is exciting - there's no question about it. Betroffenheit has a far-reaching accessibility (bar its name, perhaps, a term Young has compared to 'a sneeze'), but not in the same way that, say, Matthew Bourne's work does. Yes, it literally taps its way into myriad styles of dance, dips its toes in comedy, and entertains, its two hours whizzing by. But it is dark and complex, its inspiration personal and challenging, its soundscape at times gruelling to listen to.
And here is where the real challenge lies. The almost constant inner dialogue from Young permeates its listeners' interpretation, with little room to breathe. Of course, in this way, it perfectly captures the suffocating feeling of shock, the non-linear nature of the grieving process; of spiralling between self-blame and self-assurance.
But what is Pite's dance actually expressing? In amongst the chaos of Part One, there lies some jewels of choreography; I recall the rhythmic popping of Jermaine Spivey; the seductive ensemble tapping. And yet, the most stirring moments, the moments which allow my mind to run riot, emerge in Part Two, when the speech takes a back seat.
Here, it feels as though the dance - or moreover, Young - can breathe again. Dancers appear as though trapped in a wind tunnel, dragging each other from floor to feet and tumbling over one another in their struggle. Elements of panic seem to set in as they frantically grasp at different points on their bodies, as though missing some unknown entity they forgot they had. In the closing moments it is Spivey, as a sort of manifestation of Young's subconscious, silently clutching at his head and grimaced in pain, who achieves arguably the most provocative image of the entire work.
These representations of pain are universal. Young has spoken of his wish to make the work an accessible look at Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder - something he was never diagnosed with. It is here that this intention truly comes to life. The pain witnessed is haunting because it has meaning for the audience, whatever that meaning may be. We are temporarily lifted out of Young's subconscious and back into the murky depths of our own.
Professor Peter Dickinson, writing for Dance Research Journal on Pite's work back in 2014, explains this phenomenon with greater academic weight than I have so far. Largely, he suggests that dance and speech become 'sensorially interpolated' in their simultaneous performance. Simply put, the two forms fight for attention. Might this suggest, then, that in overwhelming the senses, something is lost?
Dickinson goes on to argue that in speech-based works, the text may have greater potential for being remembered than the dance. Subjectively, I beg to differ: it is the stark images of suffocating, snakelike microphones, menacing clowns, and the chaotic cacophony of gestures surrounding Young at the hospital table that have stayed with me. Here, as a person who has gratefully never suffered such trauma as Young, the images - not the words -have haunted me the most.
And so it seems, through a work heavily laden with speech, Pite has in fact returned me to the reason I am here, writing this piece, in the first place: dance, in all its universally expressive wonder. In Betroffenheit, the speechless dance is where we escape. It is where we remember why dance needs no words to disturb, to jar, to resonate.
Betroffenheit is still available on BBC Iplayer for a limited time.
Dickinson, P. (2014) Textual matters: Making narrative and kinesthetic sense of
Crystal Pite's dance-theater. Dance Research Journal, 46 (1), pp. 61-83.