Betroffenheit: The Show and the Emotions

“Betroffenheit” is a German emotion word. Max Wyman compared it to being gobsmacked. I might add nonplussed. But English and French words only capture part of the meaning of betroffenheit. Crystal Pite, a brilliant Canadian choreographer (Kidd Pivot productions), created an entire dance show that translates betroffenheit in several of the brain’s (verbal and non-verbal) languages.[1] Since seeing this very powerful show a couple of weeks ago, it has frequently come to my mind (a light perturbance); and I’ve discussed it with many people. I had been resisting the urge to blog about it, for lack of time. But reading Brett Terpstra’s blog post, “How’s it going?”, about the grief he is experiencing from losing his dog, Emma[2], led me to reply to his post with the following.

When I meet someone who is deeply into a certain form of art, I ask them what work of art of that form best represents “perturbance”, which is, to a first approximation, the obsessive control that a cluster of mental content has over us when we are in an insistent emotion-like state. Grief, romantic love (“limerence”), and urges of addiction are the best examples.

I recently attended Betroffenheit, a dance show, finishing its world tour in Vancouver. In the pre-show talk, Max Wyman interviewed the choreographer. The extremely talented and articulate Crystal Pite (Kidd Pivot productions). After the talk, I asked him the same question about dance. He said “This is it, what you’re going to experience tonight”. He should know, as he is a noted dance historian. Still, I wondered whether it just happened to be fresh on his memory. But no. He was right. That show really conveyed perturbance, in two of its most powerful forms: grief and addictions.

The show is no longer running. But there is apparently a DVD. I wouldn’t recommend it while grieving. But I think it could potentially be a helpful tool to prepare ourselves for grief, a protracted emotion that anyone who lives a long and rich enough life will have to deal with more than once. I don’t think there’s any full inoculation though. Grief is the price we pay for loving.

The show itself has been on my mind a lot since then. I typed this out in nvALT.

Thanks again for all the sharing you do, Brett.

Brett shares his software and insights about many topics, technical and non-technical. He often shares deeply personal experiences. This he does on his blog, podcasts (Systematic, etc.), twitter, and other media.

I will write more about betroffenheit and about learning from shows like Betroffenheit. The topics are relevant to the Discontinuities and Learning from Art projects.


1. Compare A Better Idea than Language Universals. Wierzbicka, A. (1992). Defining emotion concepts. Cognitive Science, 16(4), 539–581. And also Lutz, C., & White, G. M. (1986). The Anthropology of Emotions. Annual Review of Anthropology, 15, 405–436.

2. Emma Sophia Memorial Campaign at American SPCA.

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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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