The Art of Stealing taps into a postapocalyptic world

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A production of the response. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Thursday, May 29. Continues until May 31

If you stopped being afraid of the dark a long time ago, Amber Funk Barton’s new work just might bring back that old sense of panic—at least for the hour while you’re in the theatre.

With The Art of Stealing, she’s conjured a truly creepy postapocalyptic world, where it appears the electricity’s been out for a while. Much of the action unfolds in shadowy light, characters often move around armed only with flashlights, and blackouts are used to eerie effect: at the beginning, each time the stage goes dark, another slumped, hooded figure appears when the dim light flashes on again.

The idea is that six desperate stragglers have survived whatever heinous plague has befallen the earth, and yes, there are shades of everything from The Road to The Walking Dead here. But what’s interesting is to see Funk’s rough, highly physical style structured around a loose story line—something a lot of contemporary dance avoids at all costs, but which actually can connect when things don’t get too literal.

Here, figures appear alone at first, braced against the brick end wall and ignoring each other’s plight. Then they join, struggle together, and end up fighting and turning on one another. Toward the end, as a cryptic, graphic-novellike intertitle tells us, things start to happen—chilling things. The figures contort, seem to die, then reanimate as broken zombies. One image of dancer Lexi Vajda, her head thrown back as if her neck is broken, lurching toward an open door that throws a triangle of light across the stage floor is spooky enough to give George Romero nightmares.

There are other striking sequences of movement as well, especially from standouts Manuel Sorge and Kevin Tookey. At one point Sorge swings his head around like a tetherball; bodies run and run, then stop to slump like they’re under the world’s heaviest burden; when they fall ill, they clamp their hands to their jaws, as if trying to hold on to their humanity. On very small occasions, the action feels literal—when the dancers repeatedly try to push at an immovable wall, say, or when they kung-fu fight. What Barton’s best at is creating striking cinematic scenes that work their way under your skin: imagine a clearly undead Sorge, his shoulders curled forward like his arms have fallen right out of their sockets, sidling toward the last survivor before the lights go out.

Marc Stewart’s score adds to that movie feel, a nightmare of howling wind, radio static, walkie-talkie fragments, and guitars and drums. Lululemon lab’s hooded black costumes are simultaneously hip and postmodern, as if the survivors have gathered what they can from skater stores and abandoned vintage boutiques. And the set, with the Firehall seating divided in two by a long column of stage, works well, disorienting viewers and putting them on guard right off the bat.

Put altogether, with its hip, graphic-novel-meets-motion-picture style, The Art of Stealing is hugely accessible and has great potential for drawing new audiences to dance. This isn’t pretentious, technique-obsessed work; it’s raw, intense, and easy to connect with. In other words, it’s time for all you Walking Dead addicts—those glued to the TV series, the graphic novels, and the video games—to get off the couch and shuffle your way out for a night of live, and undead, culture.

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