The German word Betroffenheit has no single equivalent in English. But we can understand it all right — it describes the emotional condition that Canadian actor and theater director Jonathon Young experienced after his young daughter, niece and nephew died in 2009 in an accidental fire.
Shocked, wordless, traumatized. Stuck in a looping, neverending hell. That was his Betroffenheit.
It’s also the title and theme of a 2015 dance-theater piece, presented Wednesday at the Broad Stage, that Young made in collaboration with choreographer Crystal Pite and five extraordinary dancers from her Vancouver-based company, Kidd Pivot.
This two-act, imaginatively crafted work could have been a bludgeoning tool, given that it’s based on the accident and its aftermath. Young, who wrote the text and stars in the piece, and Pite, who choreographed and directed it, aimed for and achieved a more enlightening conclusion.
In the same way that Edvard Munch’s seminal painting “The Scream” took his specific state of mind and made such wretchedness relatable and universal, “Betroffenheit” wraps the unthinkable in theatrical guise and posits that surviving is not just possible — it’s important to do so.
In Act 1, Young is trapped in set designer Jay Gower Taylor’s grim industrial room, with electrical chords that, like eerie snakes, climb the walls on their own until Young pulls their plugs. It is a grim setting, perfect for a slasher movie thanks also to composer Owen Belton’s ominous sound score.
The room is a stand-in for Young’s sickly ruminating mind. Lights flicker on and off, and a voice over a public-address system talks for and to Young: “What do we say?” “What happened?” “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!”
Dancer Jermaine Spivey, who moves with a miraculous exactitude and articulation, is introduced as a kind of doppelganger for Young, jerking through pointed gestures as the voice on the PA annunciates each word.
Finally, Young attempts to numb and escape his demons. He dons a wig and an electric blue suit, and he joins the dancers in a tap dancing, Vegas-style floor show, symbolic of a spiral into substance abuse and addiction.
The set and tacky costumes (designs by Nancy Bryant) are exchanged in Act 2 for a nearly bare stage, loose clothing and fierce, pure movement. Pite captures the look of people attempting to stay upright on a rocking ship through her roiling and physically heroic phrases.
Christopher Hernandez flies through extreme positions almost faster than the eyes and mind can process. Dancers David Raymond, Cindy Salgado and Tiffany Tregarthen were equally impressive, as was Young, who is decades their elder and just as accomplished and committed.
A giant pillar stands center stage, reaching up into the fly space. The dancers only occasionally pay it notice; Pite choreographs around it. But it’s a reminder of the wound that has forever altered Young’s life.
Young returns at the end and a recorded narration attempts to wrap things up, to present meaningful conclusions. It was unnecessary.
More than most dance makers, Pite forcefully delivers a full range of expressive possibilities from the tiniest eyeball twitch to bodies stretched and twisted to extremes. There was no mistaking the creators’ intentions. Spivey is the last to leave the stage, using a deeply-bent-knee gait, marionette-like — but still alive.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday
Where: The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica