Thursday, October 13, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 26

Yesterday Justine and Alexa and I were finally able to coordinate our schedules to undertake our first group interview since before the summer. Luckily for us our interview subject was Amber Funk Barton, who was so open and generous with us. The recounting of her dance history was like a long love letter to the community: starting with Arts Umbrella's Artemis Gordon, who took Amber under her wing following Amber's graduation from high school (throughout which Amber had been doing Goh Ballet Academy's half-day program), and eventually steering her towards Ballet BC's mentor program.

Following the conclusion of her formal training, Amber was lucky to dance for and receive further guidance from three other icons in the community: Joe Laughlin (where she first met James Gnam and Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg), Judith Marcuse, and Lola McLaughlin. Lola took Amber on her first tour of Europe, an epic transmigration of several major Vancouver dance artists and companies to Croatia coordinated by The Dance Centre's Mirna Zagar. Noam Gagnon and Dana Gingras of Holy Body Tattoo, Alvin Erasga, battery opera, Crystal Pite, Joe Laughlin, and others all made the journey. Gingras, in particular, would become a major influence on Amber, inviting her to be part of Heart is an Arena and teaching Amber that dance was as much about embodying ideas and energy as it was about performing the steps correctly.

During this time Amber was also starting to create her own work, beginning with two full-length creations in four months. As Amber said, in retrospect the way she went about launching her choreographic career was naively ambitious. For example, she created her company, the response, in 2008 because she had maxed out her eligibility for individual project funding. But she had an idea for a new piece and so she created a company in order to tap into a different pool of money and make the work happen. The result was Risk, which I well remember seeing at The Firehall, with Amber, the two Joshes (Beamish and Martin), David Raymond, and Heather L. Gray creating kinetic magic in and around a couch (a prop that Amber said they incorporated from the rehearsal studio upstairs at the Firehall). Amber took time to credit Firehall Artistic Producer Donna Spencer for her faith in her work, as well as her immense contributions to the development and promotion of dance in Vancouver more generally. For example, it was Donna who first connected Amber with Shay Kuebler, commissioning what would become Status Quo from them, and facilitating the work's subsequent travel to the Canada Dance Festival. Amber also noted that what she appreciated about Donna was that she was willing to invest in an artist's career over the long haul, recognizing that mistakes made in the short term would eventually pay off in more mature and satisfying work.

In terms of memorable experiences (both good and bad), Amber recounted the time she fainted on stage during rehearsal for Lola's piece while in Croatia. As Amber put it, the rehearsal was very hot, and she was wearing a plastic dress; but she didn't want to say anything, as she feared looking unprofessional. And so she continued to try to perform her steps and she collapsed to the floor. Afterwards Lola apparently worried that Amber might be pregnant. Then there was the story behind the creation of Hero and Heroine, a 30-minute duet that Amber created for herself and Josh Martin in 2010. Showing an excerpt of the work-in-progress at Dance Victoria for a bunch of different presenters changed Amber's perspective on how and why she makes work, and when and with whom she decides to share it. The work was apparently ripped apart, and in a way that reflected more of the presenters' own internal aesthetic battles than the integrity of the piece per se. Still, the experience taught Amber that she had to create work on her own terms, and not in order to please individuals who might be able to help tour that work.

Amber concluded her interview by saying that her decision to forge a career in dance was always simultaneously a decision to have that career here, in Vancouver. She also very wisely said that thinking about the future always involves a process of checking in with where she is at in the present, and that currently she is being sustained by and getting renewed energy from teaching. She noted that being a dance artist is undeniably hard, but that part of her also loves and thrives on the rigour. She also said that as a first world artist with access to resources that other folks in the world don't have (and no matter one's grumbling about how even more of such resources should be made available), she felt it was her responsibility to keep creating: because others elsewhere can't; and also because if you stop then the system wins. It was a very moving conclusion to an incredibly wise and wonderful interview.


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