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I am regularly underwhelmed by physical theatre, but Betroffenheit is great art

Sarah Crompton looks at dance and 'physical theatre' and the superb piece Betroffenheit which was created by an actor and a choreographer

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Betroffenheit at Sadler's Wells
©Michael Slobodian

Great art is by its definition surprisingly rare. But on Tuesday, at Sadler's Wells, I saw Betroffenheit, a piece by the choreographer Crystal Pite and the actor and playwright Jonathon Young that meets all the criteria.

Betroffenheit (the word means the shock and stasis felt after a terrible event) is a work about grief, suffering and addiction. It springs from the starting point of a personal tragedy when Young's teenage daughter and two cousins died in a fire while they were on holiday with their families. Yet it reaches far beyond that unique experience into universality; anyone who has ever suffered loss can identify with the emotion expressed.

I am often disappointed by how inexactly dance conveys the sense of what it is trying to say

It is a work too about the specifics of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; when I saw it for the first time in Vancouver I met a psychiatrist – no dance lover – who had worked extensively with former military men and women in a state of post-battle trauma. She was overwhelmed by how the experiences described by Young – who was not himself ever diagnosed with PTSD – and depicted in the show reflected their experiences.

Above all, it is a work of extraordinary courage and ambition. Formally beautiful, it is intellectually challenging. It refuses to settle for easy resolution, ending instead on a note of profound, questioning uncertainty, with a solo that seems to combine hope and despair in a single sequence of jumps. It is using movement to say something that is beyond words.

This is the triumph of the whole work; beautifully designed, with a haunting soundscape, it really is a piece of dance theatre. Young is centre-stage, as a participant in the action; his words are part of Betroffenheit's expression. He moves beautifully, yet he is different from the five astonishing dancers who surround him and who use movement to explain, very precisely, what he is describing. When he talks about addiction, they appear as a tatty variety show, appealing and frightening, full of life yet haunted by death. When he describes the circularity of his grief, they cradle his limp body like the figures in a Michelangelo Pietà. The anguish revealed by their bodies adds a layer of meaning.

Dancers use their bodies like paintbrushes, actors often seem to think first and move after

This is why I wanted to write about it here. I love dance, but am often disappointed by how inexactly it conveys the sense of what it is trying to say. If I watch The Invitation by Kenneth MacMillan (as I did at the Royal Opera House last week) I am overwhelmed – as I was in Betroffenheit – by how very clearly he finds steps that perfectly describe the mutual antipathy of a couple who have fallen out of love, or the horror of a rape. That rape, choreographed in 1960, is still almost unbearable to watch.

Yet all too often today's choreographers offer blurred lines; an approximation of feeling that may be quite attractive but isn't accurate. Equally, when I watch theatre, particularly what is described as ‘physical theatre', I am regularly underwhelmed by the way the actors can't find in their bodies the expressiveness to expand on what they are saying. Unlike dancers, whose use their bodies like paintbrushes, actors often seem to think first and move after. The embodiment of action eludes them.

Pite and Young have refused to settle for second best. They have worked to make both dance and theatre come together in a manner that burnishes both. That's why Betroffenheit is not simply great art, but an important statement of its communicative power. You leave it feeling you have shared and understood.