Betroffenheit is the German word for a condition now recognised as PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, the suffering human beings go through after a disaster, combatants, civilians in war, but anyone at any time. Any of us. It’s the name of a recent piece of dance theatre, which I saw a while back in London. Canadian actor/playwright Jonathon Young wrote compulsively after the death of his daughter in a fire at the family home, recording the voices in his head, the flashbacks, the symptoms we now recognise. At some point he discussed the possibility of a theatre performance with Crystal Pite, who runs the Canadian contemporary dance company called Kidd Pivot. Formerly a remarkable dancer she’s now a choreographer with a very wide interest in what dance theatre can do. & with her choreography, with her group of very extraordinary performers, it seems there’s little it can’t do.
She says that dance is great at expressing emotion but poor at conveying a complex story. The disaster in Betroffenheit isn’t spelled out: an explosion in a building is mimed. It doesn’t matter: the point is that someone, in this case Jonathon Young himself, experiences it, perhaps is accidentally responsible for it or perhaps just feels he's responsible, and we hear his voice in recorded sound as he re-experiences it, re-imagines it. He looks for solace in addiction, suggested on-stage by the bright lights and colour of variety performance, the sequined dancers, the comics. But the voices are still there, and the first half ends with confusion and near-death. This part uses mime, the second part is pure dance, the bodies of her amazing dancers conveying emotion, states, it seemed, in which even gestures intended to be comforting could seem aggressive. At the end there were only six dancers on-stage for the curtain call. I was momentarily bewildered: where were the others? I’ve seen standing ovations at that theatre before: a dozen people stand up, then a few more, maybe half the audience on their feet applauding. I’ve never before seen an entire audience, as one, immediately on their feet, applauding. An extraordinary evening.
I thought again about this while reading the Guardian piece on Iraq-born musician Nadin Al Khalidi this morning. Born in Baghdad at the start of the Iran-Iraq war, suffering then the Gulf War, the invasion and the rise of fundamentalism, she managed to flee to Sweden. Having grown up on the music of Joan Baez and her generation she began to write songs and perform. If you’re in Manchester tonight, or Liverpool tomorrow, look out for Nadin Al Khalidi and Tarabband. Tarab is Arabic for ecstasy through music. Here they are:
What links these two stories is the power of the arts to give a form to human experiences that can be overwhelming by nature. I don’t think it’s catharsis in the classic sense, much more a persistent effort at coming to terms with something. The pain cannot be removed, it can’t ever be dismissed, but with work and effort it may be possible to give some form to the problems, which makes life possible.
& tango? I’m always grateful to a friend who initially visited Buenos Aires as part of a study on how societies recover from trauma, which is how she discovered tango...
(There a quite a few clips of Betroffenheit on YouTube but unfortunately they are fragmentary, and fragmentary clips of a piece that's fragmented by nature don't really convey it, but some of the discussions are interesting.)