The audience may come away from Betroffenheit, the extraordinary ensemble dance/drama created by Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young, feeling a tiny bit unsatisfied.

There is no obvious tidy resolution. There are no easy answers, no pleasing emotional catharsis.

Resolutions, answers and catharsis are cheap in the face of the pain at the heart of Betroffenheit. This collaboration between Pite who is founder, director and choreographer of Kidd Pivot company in Vancouver, and Young who is co-founder and artistic director of Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre emerged from a tragedy seven years ago in Young’s family.

On 23 July 2009, Young and Electric Company co-founder Kim Collier’s 14-year-old daughter and only child Azra died with two young cousins in a cabin fire at a family recreational property on Shuswap Lake, near Salmon Arm, B.C. Azra’s parents were asleep in the main building when the early morning blaze erupted. Young was unable to enter the burning building and stood by helpless as his family members perished.

In a pre-show interview before last night’s performance of Betroffenheit in Victoria, Crystal Pite seemed to bristle slightly when asked if the artistic endeavour might be viewed as a way of “working out” the grief around this tragic event. She responded, “No. There is no way to ‘work out’ the grief of such an event. This piece is simply a response to the blank wall of pain.”

Pite explained that the title is a German word with no obvious English translation. She said that, when asked what Betroffenheit means, most Germans tend to put their hand over their chest and say simply that there is no obvious English equivalent.

Betroffenheit pushes against the barriers of human language. It goes to a place where human language is utterly inadequate. In place of a coherent narrative it resorts to bizarre images, jarring music, and occasional snatches of language to portray the paralyzing prison of grief into which the sufferer is plunged by an experience of unbearable human tragedy.

Doors open and shut, but lead nowhere. Lights flash on and off illuminating nothing. The main character thrashes around on the stage seeking some kind of “epiphany” in the midst of the demons that torture his mind. No obvious epiphany is forthcoming. Young is alone trapped in the stark room of grief, confined to a tiny box, apparently cut off from any hope of redemption.

The second act of this two-hour piece opens with a bare stage and a tall black pillar reaching from stage floor into the dark above. The pillar emanates a soft faint light. Much of the music in the second act sounds like large boulders grinding against one another, suggesting that something is beginning to break up and shift in the tortured interior of the protagonist.

Near the end of the performance a voice from an undisclosed source intones the words, “Defeat is the only way forward.” At this point, Young collapses into the arms of one of the female dancers seated on stage. It may be my over-active religious imagination, but for me the scene conjured an image of the Pietà.Pieta

Whether or not Pite and Young intend to suggest a vision of Mary cradling the body of her son, the parallel is not without merit. Mary too lost a child in a tragedy and was left to navigate a lifetime of loss.

There is no way to “deal with” such pain. It can only be acknowledged.

Over and over throughout Betroffenheit a voice intones some version of “It happened.” And that may be all that can reasonably be said – “It happened.” The worst you can imagine happened. The most painful circumstance conceivable happened. There is no way to escape. But, in bearing this pain, it is possible that a shard of light may break through the impenetrable darkness uniting the unknown abyss with the stark reality in which we seek to find an “epiphany” here below.

Betroffenheit ends with a glimmer of hope. But it is not a hope easily won or cheaply given. It is a hope born in the midst of the often agonizing mystery of life, a hope to which there is no easy or obvious path.

Ten-year-old Phoebe Conway, 14-year-old Azra Young, and 14-year-old Fergus Conway are seen in a handout photo provided to CTV B.C. All three died in a cabin fire near Salmon Arm, B.C., on July 23, 2009

Ten-year-old Phoebe Conway, 14-year-old Azra Young, and 14-year-old Fergus Conway are seen in a handout photo provided to CTV B.C. All three died in a cabin fire near Salmon Arm, B.C., on July 23, 2009