Advice from ‘Betroffenheit’: Beware the Voices in Your Head

The audience gathered at The Broad Stage at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center on Valentine’s Day shared a common feeling of bewilderment. Though we all were at a safe remove physically, only hours separated us from the day’s gruesome events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida, where 17 victims had lost lives to a shooting.

Bewilderment, too, was the titular and driving concept behind Kidd Pivot and The Electric Company Theatre’s dance theater work Betroffenheit. Choreographer Crystal Pite referenced Anne Bogart in the program I was perusing before the house lights slowly faded and the crowd collectively quieted: “The root of the word is treffen, ‘to meet’ and betroffen ‘to be met,’ and Betroffenheit is the state of having been met, stopped, struck or perplexed in the face of a particular event … a space and time where language ceases.”

For Pite, the language of dance was adequate armor with which to trespass into such territory, that is, the speechless aftermath of a trauma. There we met its victim, played by co-creator Jonathon Young. At a glance, he was part of a “system,” mid-recovery. A cast of five dancers tended to him, repeating how it worked. A system is in place. Don’t respond — you’re past that. What’s your first move? Staying put. There was a flashback in which the audience glimpsed the trauma while Young relived it. Later, a phone rang, and an internal battle ensued. Should Young should give in to “The Show,” a distracting, drug-like infusion of entertainment performed by the five others; or, should he stay in and continue the painstaking process of healing his condition, which the voices labeled as “chronic reentry”? Spoiler: he gives in.

“The Show” was repeatedly administered by way of short successive vignettes — a flamboyant double act performed by Jermaine Spivey and Young; hypnotic tap-danced rhythms led by David Raymond; over-the-top showgirl-style formations with pink feathered costumes and props. Through their progression, Young’s body struggled to keep up, even shriveled to diminutive versions through puppetry. Still, he craved more, tirelessly reaching for or surrendering to a further and a further act until, ultimately, he was left alone, worse off than before.

Photos by Michael Slobodian.

Met with the dystopian subject matter of this show, my mind first veered toward earth-shattering apocalypse. But Betroffenheit approached something much more intimate and, thus, plausible: an apocalypse for one. Through flashes of lighting by designer Tom Visser, Young’s voice appeared at turns to ring out from a large speaker, an overhead light, and a circuit breaker. Meanwhile, Young himself was obscured in darkness. Slowly, he was revealed, huddled in the corner of a warehouse-like room or courtyard: two corrugated walls with locked doors by set designer Jay Gower Taylor. The voices — or rather, disembodied iterations of a single voice — helped to establish the tragic event; its quarantined survivor; and “a system,” i.e. “The Show.”

Off-duty cast members emerged, slowly, from the shadowy backstage. Some seemed to be caretakers of Young, others hostage takers; all were responsible for his well-being. But their duty as performers seemed to come before any responsibility to him. As Young awakened, adjusting to the rules of his newly shattered and unknown world, they circled the space in preparation, dressed in dark hoodies and carrying feathered headpieces and bowler hats as if stage hands.

Among them, Spivey played Young’s upbeat alterego; sometimes he smooth-talked himself, at other points he argued with the protagonist, mouthing Young’s pre-recorded lines as he simultaneously moved in tune with their various syncopations and smooth or staccato qualities. The voices conjured loneliness once Spivey and Young began conversing and I realized they were the same. It was the feeling of talking to oneself, each self made visible by a different cast member. Moving together in tableaux as they repeatedly debated Young’s fate, the six depicted a multi-bodied ecosystem of the voices in one’s head.

Photos by Michael Slobodian.

The system was susceptible to memory outages. It wasn’t long before the clown-like gremlin played by Tiffany Tregarthen scuttled onstage in a deep second-position plié. She pushed a wooden box into the room, apparently unbeknownst to Young. Spidery in her presence, the woman was dressed for “The Show”: face painted, hair tucked into a skin-toned skull cap with a plush cone perched on top like a birthday hat, and a glittery top and shorts that revealed much fair skin and attenuated musculature. Projecting out into the audience as if we were in on her secret, she stopped just short of the warehouse’s limits. Sneering, she lifted an imaginary lever on top of the box and pressed down hard, setting off a PTSD explosion of dynamite in Young’s memory. Suddenly the stage went black; bodies were flung through spots of strobe lighting but it was impossible to discern any choreography.

Later, Young himself was at the center of his danced entertainment, which is why it both distracted him so fully and drained him so perilously. This immersive twist, Young as the star and host of “The Show,” surprised and captivated me in the moment, not least because of the dynamic shifts it required of the actor. He’d quickly metamorphosed from debilitated survivor to coyly grappling with whether to submit to the temptation “The Show” offered. Spoken into the phone, the line, “it’s this self-centered, self-involved thing I’m trying” prompted laughter; we’ve all wondered whether to let loose or stay in for a virtuous evening of self-care. A moment later, however, Young left, then burst back through the door as the long-haired casino star opposite Spivey: “The Show” had officially begun.

Photos by Michael Slobodian.

Contained inside this show-within-a-show convention were other tried-and-true choreographic devices, namely, a familiar-feeling tap ensemble piece and partnered Latin dances like you’d see at any salsa club. But these tropes were contained, and even critiqued by, Betroffenheit as a whole: they were crowd-pleasing and easy to enjoy. Framing them was “reality” — what audiences have come to know as Pite’s “true,” Forsythe-descended movement vocabulary. Taken as a whole, Young and Pite’s work succeeded in drawing upon the breadth of what dance can offer.

There’s a viewing of Betroffenheit in which Young’s body is the only one present. The entire thing is a trip, “The Show” — for the audience’s benefit as much as Young’s — merely an injection-induced projection of the mind, complete with a Wellesian paranoia of “the system” in which we are all pawns. But look at social media, at reality TV, at our president, and you can see self-centric entertainment is everywhere. “The Show” isn’t much of a stretch. Addiction and trauma, as at the heart of Betroffenheit, are both major existential threats. Entertainment — whether in the form of a captivating performance, a dose of a drug, or a drink — cannot void tragedy. The relief is only temporary, and eventually, memory returns to the disastrous scene again and again.

Indeed, the script unsubtly equated entertainment with substance abuse. “Did we give him too much?” At another point, a cast member loudly whispered, “blackout,” that word shared by both heavy drinkers and showmen. Though I expected an ending there, a dark scrim parachuted across the stage like rolling smoke, covering and silencing all activity until Young came out the other side in a stupor. The cast of “The Show” considered again whether to take emergency measures; that is, whether to give him more “Show.” Finally, lacking recourse, the cast members shoved Young into the same wooden box Tregarthen had previously proffered. Their voices, as in the beginning, came on over the loudspeaker as they departed one by one, waiting for the next show, the next trip, to commence. Only Spivey remained outside Young’s door as the curtain lowered, weeping; unable, perhaps, to keep up the farce.

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