The director of Electric Company Theatre on working with Choreographer Crystal Pite to explore the effects of PTSD in Kidd Pivot’s Betroffenheit, presented by TITAS at Dallas City Performance Hall.
Dallas — Audiences are in for something different when TITAS presents two of Canada’s most groundbreaking performing arts companies, Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre, in a one-of-a-kind dance theatre experience this Thursday and Friday evening at Dallas City Performance Hall. The name of the work, Betroffenheit,is a German word that describes the shock or bewilderment that often follows in the wake of a violent or distressing event. In English it is loosely translated to mean “shock” or “a loss for words.” By combining text, design, story and dance, renowned choreographer Crystal Pite and Electric Company Theatre Artistic Director Jonathon Young hope to heighten the emotional state of their audiences as it pertains to the troubling aspects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The 120-minute work also features strobe-like effects, non-toxic theatrical haze, adult themes and coarse language.
Crystal Pite is a Canadian choreographer best known for her keen wit, brazen movement choices and theatrical flair. A former company member of Ballet British Columbia and William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt, Pite made her choreographic debut in 1990, and since then has created more than 40 works for dance companies all around the globe, including Nederlands Dans Theatre, The National Ballet of Canada and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, to name a few. Pite is associate choreographer of Nederlands Dans Theatre I and Associate Dance Artist of Canada’s National Arts Centre. She was also appointed associate artist at Sadler’s Wells in London in 2013. Since 2002 her dance troupe, Kidd Pivot, has been racking up critical acclaim both nationally and internationally with its unique blending of classical and contemporary movements, breathtaking physicality and strong theatrical sensibility.
Jonathon Young is a Canadian actor best known for his role of Nikola Tesla on the SyFy show Sanctuary. His other acting credits include The Fog, Eureka and Stargate Atlantis. He is a graduate of the Studio 58 theatre school at Langara College and is a multiple Jessie Richardson Theatre Award Winner. Young is currently the artistic director of the Vancouver-based Electric Company Theatre, which he formed alongside fellow theatre school peers Kim Collier, David Hudgins and Kevin Kerr in 1996. What started out as a creative outlet for these young actors, directors and playwrights has quickly grown into one of Canada’s leading creators of live theatre. Over the last two decades Electric Company Theatre has created 21 original productions, including Betroffenheit, Tear the Curtain!, No Exit, Studies in Motion, Brilliant! and the feature film The Score. The Company has toured throughout Canada, to the U.S. and the U.K., and is also the co-founder of Progress Lab 1422, a 6,000-square-foot theatre creation space in Vancouver.
TheaterJones asks Jonathon Young about the evolving performing arts scene in Vancouver, coming up with the concept for Betroffenheit and bringing all the visual and technical elements together with the help of Crystal Pite.
TheaterJones: What does Betroffenheit mean? How did you come up with the concept for the production?
Jonathon Young: I found the word in a book called “Then We Act” by American Theatre Artist Anne Bogart. Betroffenheit is a German word that describes a state of being in the wake of a traumatic event. In English we say “shock” or “speechless” or “being at a loss for words.” In Anne Bogart’s definition of the word she said it’s “a fertile and palpable silence….where language ceases and only the limits of language can be taken in.” So, on one level the word describes a tension between speech and action, which seemed perfect for a dance/theatre hybrid. Also, because there is no equivalent word in English, because it doesn’t translate, it seemed a very good title for a show about PTSD. It’s a big, mysterious word; bewildering and foreign, and that’s one of the troubling aspects of post-traumatic stress disorder: people who suffer from it feel “outside” life, they become cut off from others, it feels foreign and it’s very hard to describe to others what’s happening. I’ve never had it though, this is all from my research.
Can Dallas audiences expect to be taken on a more sensory or emotional journey during the production?
I would hope that the show would provide both a sensory and emotional experience for audience members. It is a personal and human story with thrilling technical elements.
All art forms struggle to find a balance between artistic expression and general accessibility. Do you think you and Pite found that balance in Betroffenheit? Can you give me a couple of examples?
Audiences who have seen the show so far seem to be “getting it” if that’s what you mean. It’s communicating a very specific story and yet, because it relies heavily on the more abstract expression of pure dance, there is plenty of room for interpretation. We’ve tried to stage the bewildering experience of PTSD, which involves something called “re-experiencing” (basically flashbacks that come without warning and seem very real). We’ve attempted to disorder the narrative structure in the same way that trauma can disorder reality. All this to say that there are some passages of Betroffenheit where an audience member who is expecting a very linear experience might feel lost or confused. But I suspect much of our audience is coming prepared to see a work of contemporary dance, and thus, isn’t going to be looking for a traditional scripted narrative.
Have you worked with Crystal Pite on previous projects? What makes her and her dancers such a good fit for this production?
I have worked with Crystal twice before. Electric Company hired her to do choreography for a play and a feature film that had dance sequences. This is the first time we’ve made something from scratch together. The Kidd Pivot dancers are not only rock star contemporary dancers, they’re also really good actors. I’m in awe of them all. I’d trust them with my life.
How did you and Pite go about blending the story, text, theatrics and movement in the show? Did you have any say when it came to Pite’s choreographic choices and vice versa?
Crystal and I just started talking. I sent her some writing that depicted a kind of dramatic zone disordered by an event in the past. She asked questions, responded with images, thought about design ideas and various characters, and then asked a bunch more questions. I would go away and write some more. Sometimes dialogue, sometimes stage directions that described specific action. We wanted to create a world where language and physicality were two essential halves of one whole. I started recording dialogues I’d written very early on and Crystal started using those recordings as a kind of music for the dancers to move to. We worked together every step of the way to find the right balance between text, design, story and dance. She collaborated on all the writing and there is even one scene written by her. The choreography is all Crystal, but we talked endlessly about the overall shape and structure, the progression of events. It was probably the most thrilling and daunting collaborations of my career. The material is quite dark, but the process was often quite joyful.
How would you describe the movement inBetroffenheit? Pedestrian? Modern-based? Athletic? Lyrical?
There’s contemporary dance, salsa, tap dancing, clown, soft shoe numbers, slapstick routines, puppetry… and then some straight up acting too.
What led you along with Kim Collier, David Hudgins and Kevin Kerr to form the Electric Company Theatre?
We got out of theatre school in Vancouver in the mid 90’s and had some very specific ideas about what we thought theatre could be, and I guess we felt like we weren’t seeing it being done anywhere, so we decided to do it ourselves. We were young and brimming with energy and ideas, and also the four of us had really different skill sets so together we were able to carve something out of nothing. I really learned to write from Kevin and David. Kim became a director by doing it. We just made it up as we went along. And I guess in many ways we still are.
How competitive is the performing arts scene in Vancouver today?
It’s a relatively small city, so there isn’t a whole bunch of opportunity for actors and directors and designers. A handful of companies to work for, and no real commercial scene to speak of, but there is a strong indie scene and the city still has that kind of DIY spirit that produces a really eclectic, smart, outlandish brand of theatre.
How has the performing arts scene in Vancouver evolved since starting Electric Company Theatre in 1996?
The city is constantly growing and changing. There’s many, many extraordinary artists living here working in visual arts and music and there’s a strong film and television industry. We have a thriving Shakespeare Festival, a fantastic annual performing arts Festival called PUSH that brings in shows from all over the world, and a great annual dance series called Dance House. It’s a cool place to live and produce work, but I also feel that it’s so important to leave, go elsewhere and see what other people are up to.
>> This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.
>> For more background on the evolution of dance theatre, check out Danielle Georgiou’s most recent Sixth Position column.