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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Review: Betroffenheit is a visually stunning exploration of grief

We all deal with grief in different ways. In Betroffenheit, theatre artist Jonathon Young does it in a spectacularly visual way in front of a live audience.

The show’s programme points to a tragedy that was the basis for this piece, written by Young and co-created with Vancouver choreographer Crystal Pite. It doesn’t take much digging to discover that Betroffenheit was borne from the tragic death of Young’s fourteen-year-old daughter Azra and her two cousins in a 2009 fire.

Run the German word betroffenheit through an online translator, and it spits out the English equivalent as ‘consternation.’  The problem is that the definition of consternation doesn’t quite capture the full meaning of the German word, especially in the context of the dance hybrid that is currently taking the country by storm.

Not that Betroffenheit is about this specific event, as we are only ever aware that a tragic event of some sort has occurred.  Realizing the tragic real-life circumstances from which Betroffenheit comes, though, gives a deeper appreciation for what Young has achieved as part of his grieving process; not many of us have the opportunity to express our grief in such a spectacularly public fashion.

Given the reception that Betroffenheit has received, I may well be in the minority, but for a show grown from such devastating origins, it was surprising how impassive the link from stage to my seat was.  Perhaps knowing the specifics in which Betroffenheit is framed might have helped, but this fusion of dance and theatre never entirely pulled me into its underlying and necessary emotional connection.

While I may have failed to find an emotional link to Betroffenheit, there is no denying the often stunning visual and auditory landscapes created as Young recounts his grieving process. Of course, this is no literal interpretation of the seven stages of grieving, though, as anyone who has post-traumatic stress disorder will tell you, PSTD never manifests itself in such a neatly linear fashion.

Helping to create the often surreal terrain, Young navigates are five superb dancers, Bryan Arias, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey and Tiffany Tregarthen. The mix of dance styles is at times as breathtaking as the sound design from Owen Belton, Alesandro Juliani and Meg Roe. Young’s live or pre-recorded voice is interspersed with the dance, which seamlessly floats from his mouth to the objects and the dancers on stage. With Jay Gower Taylor’s combination of realistic set and darker dreamlike places that Young traverses, it is a cacophony that is often relentless, delving into both the mental and physical manifestations of grief.

The cliché says that all it takes is time. Yet, seven years after Jonathon Young and his wife Kim Collier lost their daughter Azra, the healing may have only begun.

Betroffenheit created by Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young. Written by Jonathon Young. Choreographed and directed by Crystal Pite. A Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre presentation. No further performances in Vancouver. Visit for more information and details of the upcoming tour.

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