040618 Betroffenheit, Ottawa, ON

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On the morning of April 6th, 2018 I received an email from the National Arts Centre promoting their upcoming events, which included a modern dance production that somehow caught my eye.  It’s not that I considered for even a moment buying a ticket to whatever it was (dance-averse arts lover that I am) but the photo and description made the production sound pretty interesting.  And then, moments after I deleted the email I received a message from a friend asking if I’d like to join her that evening for the penultimate performance of that very same eye-catching show; a much-heralded modern dance piece that had been turning the dance world on it’s ear for the last several years and was currently in town at the NAC.

Again, I’m not crazy about dance in any form but I do love a good dash of serendipity so of course I said yes.

The piece was called Betroffenheit, and it was written by a fellow named Jonathon Young who had the horrible misfortune (in real life) of arriving too late to save his daughter and niece from a cottage fire while they were on vacation together.  After descending into a deep, drug-enhanced depression he (in collaboration with choreographer Crystal Pite) emerged with an astoundingly complex, layered post-modern cerebral search into a desperate bottomed-out soul, for six dancers.

The show began with giant power cables snaking creepily across the stage like so many industrial cobras.  Flashing lights eventually revealed our main character cowered in the corner of a dirty, empty room having endless looping conversations with himself.  For the first three minutes it was pure theatre without a trace of dance; wacky, noisy, abstract, and very reminiscent of the small experimental pay-what-you-can university productions I used to go to back in the day.  And more importantly I was starting to think I was going to really like it.

When the dancing actually started I was completely and instantly floored; every movement was utterly enthralling.  Everything was completely different than anything I had seen before and it was all astounding.  There were jerky, in-synch motions that looked like a video tape being paused and rewound, sped up and slowed down.  There were remarkable flowing interactions between the dancers where you couldn’t tell one limb from another, rubber bodies tangled up and separated from one another outlining loud and clear the obviously fragmented psyche of the story’s protagonist.

The music (which I believe was all pre-recorded) interspersed perfectly with the oft-repeating, looping dialog.  Mostly slow, rhythmic keyboard patches mixed with cacaphonic static and white noise, it somehow came off as being very Philip Glass-like to my ears, so much that I was convinced halfway through the first act that Betroffenheit was to Swan Lake as Einstein On The Beach was to Don Giovanni.  

And while I’m making comparisons, the visual overload of watching up to a half-dozen twisting, wrenching bodies simultaneously depicting the angsty demon-battles of a single, deeply depressed mind was like watching a live Cubist painting.  All sides were being presented at once and the result was confusing, ugly, and exhilarating,

Throughout the show crescendoing music played off of abrupt vacuums of silence to amazing effect.  Sometimes the sudden absence of sound revealed deep, exhausted panting from the dancers, reminding the audience that what these people were doing was not only brilliant, beautiful, poignant and graceful, but it was also really hard, physical work.

When the curtain dropped my friend turned to me and said, “Well, I guess that’s it.”  I picked my jaw up off the floor and turned to her with an incredulous look on my face.  “What?!?!” I cried.  “It can’t end there!”

And I was right.  A quick glance in the program told us there were in fact two acts so I offered to grab us a drink.  While we were in the beer line we were talking about the woman seated behind us that had laughed at several key moments during the first act.  The person in line in front of us piped in about her and so did the person behind us.  Clearly the lady’s laughter was upsetting a lot of people and the consensus was that whoever she was she was being very inappropriate and “just didn’t get it.”  I added that I didn’t really “get” the performance either, but I had to admit that at least I didn’t think it was funny.  The lady behind us said that alone proved that I “got it.”

Shortly after the even starker, more depraved second act started the lady laughed once more (very loudly, followed up with a giddy and breathless, “Oh dear!”) and shortly afterwards I heard some commotion back there and a door opening and closing, so I guess she decided to try out Yuk-Yuk’s down the street instead (whether or not via her own volition I know not).  The rest of us remained glued to our seats wondering how the dancers before us could possibly bring such a brilliant, astoundingly dark piece of manual art to a fitting close. 

Of course they did, and quite nicely too.  I don’t want to provide any spoilers but there just might have been some metaphorical rainbows and unicorns in store as we the audience were reassured that our hapless, rock-bottomed hero was probably going to be okay after all.

Keep in mind that this was all presented in avant-garde minimalist psycho-dramatic modern dance, so it may actually have been an unwitting pick-your-own-adventure sort of thing based upon each audience member’s personal Rorschach interpretation of all the breathtaking weirdness.  

The bottom line here is that it turns out that I don’t hate dance, at least not like I thought I did.  To be fair, I’ve enjoyed dance once or twice – a David Byrne concert in Montreal comes to mind – but I had never enjoyed dance like I enjoy every other art.  But now I have, at least this once. 

Actually I can say without hyperbole that Betroffenheit was one of the most surprising and enthralling shows I’ve ever seen, dance or otherwise.  So, just like the first time I read Charles Bukowski and discovered all at once what it felt like to love poetry, now I know what it’s like to love ballet.

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