am a, on right now at The Cultch's Vancity Culture Lab, is a unique collaboration between choreographer and dance artist Amber Funk Barton and director and theatre artist Mindy Parfitt. Having previously worked together on This Stays in the Room, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades' acclaimed 2014 devised theatre piece that Parfitt directed and Barton choreographed, the two artists decided to work together independently on a collaboration that would require them to work outside their established disciplines. Building off of cognitive theories of neuroplasticity, in which the brain is able to teach itself new neural pathways, Parfitt and Barton showcase for us the process by which the former learned to dance and the latter to use her voice.
The focus on process is key. To be sure, the piece does build to dual spotlight moments in which Parfitt, in white tutu, demonstrates for us her graceful swan moves, and Barton, having changed before our eyes into an evening gown, sings an operatic aria. However, the piece is much more concerned with exposing and explaining the mental and kinetic labour behind the acquisition of these new embodied techniques. And also with the habits the two performers had to unlearn in order to rewire their brains to be accepting of and open to this challenge. In this respect, the stories that Parfitt and Barton tell in successive monologues (accompanied by stunning projections by scenographer Ana Cappelluto) reveal that gender is likewise an embodied technique of knowledge, and one in which women generally, and female artists more specifically, are disproportionately taught to accept and internalize as normal habits that are not just constraining, but frequently unhealthy. But in other shared disquisitions on brain activity and bodily capacity, including one that explains the show's unique title, the performers reveal that gender and age are not in fact an impediment to the practice and refinement of new skills; they are, instead, an essential ingredient.
Recognizing this means first making oneself receptive to new ideas, and vulnerable enough to fail in their initial execution. Fortunately these warm and generous performers gives us an opportunity to practice both at the top and close of their show.