Kaija Pepper: “Risk”, the premiere production of Amber Funk Barton’s company, The Response, takes place on a stage that is empty except for a sturdy rose-coloured sofa. The five dancers return there to flirt, huddle, sleep, pass out, sulk or watch the others – sometimes alone, sometimes in twos or threes, and sometimes the whole gang squashed tribally together. It’s a good device, establishing a domestic location without being literal or taking up too much floor space.
Funk Barton needs that space for her lively mix of contemporary choreography: full of the jerks, spasms, rolls, turns, arabesques, and freezes that are increasingly part of contemporary theatrical dance. It’s a captivating and egalitarian mix, and Funk Barton and her team – Josh Beamish, Heather L. Gray, Josh Martin and David Raymond – are enthusiastic movers.
The first quarter of “Risk” is fun to watch, with cool unison routines involving the whole gang. There are also plenty of individual moments, with Beamish in the evening’s first extended solo. The twenty-one-year-old throws himself into what he does so well: pitting elegant balletic turns next to explosive isolations. He’s cool and at the same time a “good boy” who put in his time at the barre. During Gray’s solo – upstage under a spot, in which she’s pouty-faced and squirmy all over like a camera is on her for a music video – I began to tune out. Maybe I was just being a stuffy feminist die-hard, so let me turn the discussion over to you, Mary.
Mary Theresa Kelly: Maybe you were just being a pouty-faced feminist! But I have to agree with you regarding the spot on Gray during the hip hop soundtrack. I’m surprised Funk Barton didn’t drape a fur coat around her! She performed the “gangsta’ girlfriend” posing without humour, parody or social comment. But then listen to the lyrics in MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” that Jacob Cino remixed for the show. The rock-pop band epitomizes “guyland”, boys singing about getting “models for wives” and wanting to “live fast and die young”. The original quote was “live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse”, something Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain subscribed to and did, all dying at age twenty-seven from drug overdoses. I’m free-associating now but I wonder if “Risk” is celebrating the 27 Club? Maybe it’s just me because I’m so bored with drugs and bad boys, and keep seeing them pop up everywhere!
KP: Well, if living on that kind of edge was the risk the title is referencing, the work needed to be a lot darker. Remember the scene where the twenty or so young extras pile on stage and there’s the big party, with lots of head nodding (not head banging, it wasn’t unruly enough to be called that), and step-step-clap unison movement by the whole group? That wasn’t a rave; it was a high school dance. At the end everyone lined up at the front of the stage and each one held a cell phone aloft, pointing the lit screens toward the audience, proud consumers all. Then, as the young people exited, one girl was talking into her phone, negotiating with perhaps a parent to get a taxi to go home in – which was commendable, of course, but not about risk.
MTK: News flash, Kaija – the “extras” were listed as “clubbers” in the program, though you’re right, the scene was not at all Dionysian or rave-like. But I felt the movement itself, throughout, took risk and I loved the speed of the full-body rolls on the floor and the chaîné turns on the diagonal. All five of these dancers articulate fast movement beautifully and Funk Barton’s use of the floor kept me interested – quick, returning phrases such as the extended legs crossing like scissors to roll the body over as it folds and curls from head to toe. In some ways the piece might be more accurately titled “Speed”.
KP: I’d go along with that. I think Funk Barton wanted something to hang her dedication to speed on – a story that audiences could easily relate to; hence the title and what she describes in the program as an “abstract narrative that follows five twentysomethings struggling with issues of identity, vulnerability, information saturation and time.” That’s a lot of character study and social critique for a young choreographer – well, for any choreographer – to put into physical movement, and I didn’t see a narrative flow or character development happening during the hour.
MTK: Well, yes, and at times I felt I was watching an episode of “Friends” with a good soundtrack. For me, the characters came across as self-indulgent rather than struggling. Struggle, to me, implies growth or change and I agree we didn’t see that happen. I suppose the conflicted love duet, in which Funk Barton and Martin traverse the stage on a horizontal line back and forth, represented change by combining themes of love, betrayal and confrontation, but it came late.
KP: It was a good duet, wasn’t it? Her pushing against him, him pushing her back, across those four large squares of light. Funk Barton’s collaborators did well here: lighting designer Jason Dubois added texture to the space and sound designer Jacob Cino contributed a layered remix of piano and traffic. Cino worked with a total of twelve separate tracks in “Risk”, which were too many in my view; the work jumped from one song to another and became too episodic as a result. Also, most of the songs had lyrics, which tended to be overly specific and dominant: I preferred tracks like the last one, called “Morse Code Generator”, a more abstract piece featuring Morse code beeps composed by Cino.
MTK: Yes, I loved the Morse Code track, too. I think Funk Barton and Cino are one of those prized mover/musician combinations that inspire each other’s creativity, and perhaps Funk Barton has found a musical match. It never occurred to me that there were too many tracks, but I did get the sense that the choreography matched the rhythm almost too consistently. Toward the end of the work, I wanted to see movement that went against the beat or used the sound and music in less predictable ways, instead of filling up each musical phrase.
At the same time, Funk Barton’s debut proves she is adept in her ability to work with a company of bodies, crafting a full range of spatial combinations. She explores multiple configurations, ensembles, trios, duets and solos, showcasing her bricolage choreographic skills and her dancers’ talents. The program notes state that the narrative theme is to “observe how young people act in society” and this is the part that stymied me. As a viewer, I want an artist to comment on or reinterpret society, not simply observe, and Risk delivered just that, observations of youth culture without risking an interpretation. Still, I look forward to Funk Barton’s next evening work and wonder what The Response might deliver.