Amber Funk Barton brings her dark vision to The Art of Stealing

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Pushing open a huge, old window upstairs at the Firehall Arts Centre to let the spring air flow in, dance artist Amber Funk Barton is upbeat and happy with life right now. And small wonder: she’s just had her work programmed into the 2014-15 National Arts Centre season, and she’s about to open her first full-length piece here in more than three years.

But she’s also about to unleash some personal demons in her Vancouver premiere, The Art of Stealing—and audience members might be surprised when they see how dark her vision is. The production will depict a jet-black, postapocalyptic future where the last stragglers of humanity struggle to survive. The title refers to how they have to literally steal from one another, but also how the biggest “thieves” are time and death.

Sure, Barton admits, like just about the rest of the planet, she’s been watching The Walking Dead and other zombie movies, as well as old dystopian sci-fi from the 1980s, like Blade Runner. And yes, like everyone else, she is curious about what the future holds as new technology sends us barrelling toward the unknown. But The Art of Stealing’s bleak world also, she suspects, comes from her own recent dark period—one that started at the end of 2010.

“I wonder if it’s a reflection back to that time when I was burning out. I had a lot of anger toward myself,” she confesses. “I didn’t see it coming; I was working and working. I think back now and I had been dancing 10 years straight. Then I started a company and it just kind of accumulated. I had been really hard on myself and expected a lot of myself for a lot of years. I needed to figure out how to create and fall in love with dance again.”

To do that, the artist known for her hip, physically pummelling dance and for the company she’s called simply “the response.” has recruited a completely new group of dancers: she’ll be performing alongside Heather Laura Gray, Maiko Miyauchi, Manuel Sorge, Kevin Tookey, and Lexi Vajda. “I just wanted new energy,” she explains.

She’s been working in a new space, at the Landing Dance Centre in South Vancouver. She’s completely reformatted the Firehall’s auditorium, splitting the risers so the audience sits on either side of the stage. And she’s had the cutting-edge designers at lululemon lab create costumes—not to mention a capsule collection based on them—in the first partnership of its kind in Vancouver’s arts scene.

The lulucollaboration has been another new source of inspiration for Barton, who is used to the budget-cramped indie-dance world where costumes so often come last. Here, the black, hooded outfits—part survival gear, part salvaged streetwear—have been an integral part of the show from very early on.

“I’m so proud to have worked with them. It really feels like it has been a collaboration in the truest sense of the word and I am just so touched at the respect and support we have been given by them,” Barton says of the lululemon lab designers, who attended rehearsals and worked closely with the dancers to find out about their need for everything from sweat-wicking fabric to knee padding. “Yes, it has been profile-raising, but I just wanted to meet people and be inspired again—and that’s what they were hoping for, too.”

Expect the overall feel of The Art of Stealing, which features projected text and carefully sculpted tableaux of dancers, to fall somewhere between a graphic novel and a series of storyboards for a film. “I think my hours of movie watching have had a huge influence on how I move dancers,” Barton says with a laugh.

In the end, she sees The Art of Stealing as a way of working through her burnout and emerging into the light again for what may be her biggest year yet. Before heading from the bright studio to the dark world of the theatre downstairs, she comments: “It’s opening next week, and I feel like I have closure. It’s this chapter ending in my life. How I feel now is so much happier than three years ago.”

Then she adds with a smile: “In retrospect its been a bit of catharsis. But, man, it’s been so much fun. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do in one piece.” 

The response. presents The Art of Stealing at the Firehall Arts Centre from Wednesday to Saturday (May 28 to 31).

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