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February 27, 2017

Betroffenheit: Stepping out of the dark

From the depths of intense tragedy, theatre maker Jonathon Young and director-choreographer Crystal Pite have produced a work of extraordinary complexity and soaring authenticity.

  • Words: Farrin Foster
  • Pictures: Michael Slobodian

When the Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young bring hybrid dance-theatre work Betroffenheit to Adelaide Festival for its debut Australian season, it will mark the second time the collaboration has been remounted.


Betroffenheit shows March 3 & 4 at The Dunstan Playhouse as part of The Adelaide Festival.

But while it will play here in its third iteration, the work remains almost entirely unchanged from when it premiered in Crystal and Jonathon’s native Canada.

“I just still can’t really believe what we did and the performers are just so incredible that I just get swept away every time I watch it,” says Crystal.

“I just love it a lot and haven’t really looked at it and felt like things need to be fixed and changed – I just kind of watch it with a sense of amazement.”

The work was initiated by Jonathon – a playwright – and was conceived by him as an artistic response to the trauma he became mired in after a cabin fire killed his daughter and two of her cousins.

Jonathon asked Crystal, who he had collaborated with previously and knew as a friend, to work on the show with him in the role of director. Although, as a choreographer, Crystal was unused to the format and was also aware of its intense content, she says she had no hesitation in agreeing.

“As daunting as it was, I knew it was something I really wanted to explore and I was so touched and so honoured to be asked to create with him in that world,” says Crystal.

While Jonathon had been writing Betroffenheit for some time, the pair found form for it together.

“There were aspects of the writing that even just in the very early days felt to me like it wanted to be danced,” says Crystal.

“Of course, I’m a choreographer so I see that in everything. But I kind of felt like there was this sense of animation in the piece – a sense of a puppeteer who is animating Jonathan or being animated by him.”

The end result is a work performed by six players, one of which is Jonathon – the protagonist – who Crystal says the audience “follow from one place – a place of great difficulty to a place that is more, well, not resolved, but at least away from stasis and into a kind of passage”.

While Crystal’s instinct to heavily incorporate dance in the show had huge influence on its final presentation, its theatre roots have not been erased.

Throughout the piece, Jonathon’s text guides a conversation that takes place between the central character and a version of himself, which is brought to life not just by the performers on stage but also using an intricate soundscape.

While making a work of such layered complexity that deals with trauma so intimately could have taken a weighty emotional toll on all involved, the process behind Betroffenheit hasn’t left any scars.

“I really have to say I took my lead from Jonathon – he approached everything with a great deal of courage and curiosity and also playfulness and openness,” says Crystal. “You can imagine what it could have been like, given another kind of personality or another set of circumstances.

“He was the reason that we had such a joyful process, that we had so much laughter in the room, that we were able to work and feel safe – that was all because of him, which was quite extraordinary.”

The feeling in the rehearsal room has translated onto stage too. Far from being a mono-tonal piece filled with unrelenting despair, Betroffenheit reveals the depth of its darkness by incorporating an even measure of light.

“There is a lot of beauty and joy in the performance,” says Crystal. “It’s not just a deep dark show of doom – it really does have these amazing moments of absurdity and comedy. It’s quite complex in nature and it’s very multifaceted.”

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