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How to Say Goodbye: A conversation with Amber Funk Barton

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By Heidi Taylor

 

I began collaborating with Amber Funk Barton in 2013 on a project led by Mindy Parfitt and Alexa Devine, called This Stays in the Room. As a co-creator, Amber’s connection to the creative impulses of the performers and the needs of the piece as a whole made her a trusted collaborator from the start. Amber and Mindy then moved into a duet collaboration, am a, and we deepened our collaborative partnership. Amber led Mindy and me in dance classes, I supported Amber in her vocal practice, and the whole creative team made an unforgettable gem of a performance. The personal stories that Mindy and Amber shared, and the investigation of neuroplasticity had a big impact on me personally. What does it mean to be a mid-life artist? How do we change?

 

Mindy Parfitt and Amber Funk Barton standing side ny side and looking at each other in am a

Mindy Parfitt and Amber Funk Barton in am a

These questions spurred an ongoing conversation about the dramaturgy of Amber’s creative practice, and we began working together one-on-one. Through quarterly meetings, I had the privilege of witnessing Amber’s search for what was next. Included in that search was a research project, How to Say Goodbye. With composer Marc Stewart, we did field recordings of sites where people were leaving and arriving. One memorable afternoon, Amber and I watched while people took leave of each other at the international security gate at YVR. After 90 minutes or so, we went to the food court for lunch and a cup of tea. We were both filled with emotion, and had the shapes and energies of bodies grasping each other, holding hands, weeping, in silence, emblazoned on our memories. From these sources and many others, Amber did a research process with dancers Katie Cassady, Isak Enquist, and Josh Martin, creating the base for duets and solos from these central images and themes.

And then the pandemic happened.

Amber didn’t know what would happen next. But she was steadfast in wanting to employ the dancers she had done the initial research with. So she created a new process, with the music that Marc had created before the lockdown, and the video documentation of the original research. She coded movement sections from the videos, and then set exploration parameters for Isak, Katie, and Josh to explore in their own spaces – living rooms and empty studios. Together on Zoom, they knitted together the source material into three solos which gained new meaning in the context of all of us saying goodbye to so many of the known structures in our lives. Their bodies form the shape of a duet with a partner missing, and their embodiment of those moments represent such an ache for connection. Amber, having to take her usual very embodied choreographic process into a digital collaboration context, found her trust of the dancers and her ability to sculpt from afar, both expanded.

With the support of the Shadbolt Centre, Amber, Isak, Katie and Josh were able to film the solos with Marc’s music. They were released in the fall. On April 29th, a new version of the work will be released by the Shadbolt. In this iteration, Josh is passing his solo on to Amber, and the dancers will be (within safety guidelines) reunited in the process.

 

Dancer Isak Enquist in How to Say Goodbye – long shot of large darkened stage with ghostly spotlights shining down on the stage

Dancer Isak Enquist in How to Say Goodbye. Photo: Burkeville Productions

 

Amber, I started working with you on the project pretty early, but can you talk a bit about what planted the seeds for How to Say Goodbye? 

Well, it’s kind of a sad story. Three years ago, I guess it was 2018, my Grandfather was not doing well, so my husband and I went down to Seattle to see him, and it was not good. It was the last time I saw him in person. I was sitting with him, and he was having a lot of pain in his hands, so I was trying to get him to do dance moves with his hands, to find some relief. And then later as I was sitting at his bedside I thought, I guess this is how I am saying goodbye.

The other other day I found the original notes, and I had a different vision for the piece at the time. My Grandfather ended up passing in 2020 and my Grandmother passed in 2013, so my mom’s parents are now both passed; it’s a huge chapter in my family’s history. And this started to percolate some thoughts.

There’s so much that we don’t have control over
What leaves us
Who leaves us

This is a big topic, it brought up a lot of feelings. I had no idea what I wanted it to look like. So I started to research.

 

Yes, I think that’s about the point we started talking about the project. And one of the changes you wanted to make with this piece, was to change your process of working with music, building your creative relationship with composer Marc Stewart. In the past, he’s made music to match the choreography, but this time, he was part of the initial research?

I’ve been working with Marc since 2011. We have developed this awesome working relationship where now I feel like he’s reading my mind. The types of pieces we’ve made – I absolutely trust him.

Since music is one of my true loves, I decided to roll into the research – why don’t Marc and I write some songs? – I would love to have the experience of learning how to write a song.

We took two weeks where we shared each other’s favourite pop songs. We wrote a song together, renting sound studios to practice in, I was singing, I love to sing. It was just an experiment with myself, to ask: Is there a live music element?

Eventually that part of the process fell away and Marc made compositions based on our research, using some of the sonic material from field recordings and in response to the dance that was being generated. It feels like the spaces we observed are really captured in the textures of the music.

 

Amber and Marc working on music for How to Say Goodbye

 

Besides the obvious change, that you were making the work remotely on Zoom, was there a change to the choreographic process?

As a choreographer, I am very much a doily-knitter. I make something and then get in there and detail it. How I make movement – a lot of it is generated from my body – I have to feel it to understand it. If a dancer has generated some movement and I am trying to adjust something, I often get up and try it on. I do love being very specific – I take it seriously using the word choreographer… In the past, I thought I trusted my dancers… but then with COVID…”

But what changed for me, was that even though we did have some footage of work we had done in the room together, I realized, I have to let go. It doesn’t necessarily make sense anymore for me to be demonstrating to the dancers, no your arm is over here… I had to let them interpret it. In the beginning, my sense was that they were wondering, am I doing it right? And I told them, “There’s no wrong right now. Don’t worry about being on time in unison, interpret the movement tasks I give you, the phrasing. Take it and run.”

 

Can you talk about the technical process more?

I’m very feeling-based. But I don’t know any other way to do this. There was a lot of movement to track, so I made a colour-coded spreadsheet. I codified the movement, and then asked the dancers to do some improvisations based on the lists I made, with all the videos as source material. One dancer edited a video together of the sequence they were learning, that made it easier for them!

It was a negotiation with the dancers – you do you now.

It was very intimate, sharing our spaces. Very special.

I tried my best to be flexible with schedule changes and adjustments. I had to lead in a very liminal space.

 

Amber Funk Barton with Heidi Taylor on piano doing warmups for am a

Amber Funk Barton with Heidi Taylor on piano doing vocal warmups for am a

 

How to Say Goodbye is the final project you’re developing as the response. How does this compare to your previous work?

For the first time, the outcome of the work wasn’t my priority. It’s been all about the process.

In some ways it’s the first time I feel like I am really honouring myself as an artist. I just kept asking myself, “How can I support the dancers to do this work in very challenging times?”

I’m not worried about the product, or how good the work is. I trust that the work is resonant. It’s maybe even more satisfying than previous processes.

 

Was there a relationship between the two processes – making the dance, How to Say Goodbye, and deciding to say goodbye to this significant part of your creative life, the company you built?

The work was naturally affected by that decision, without making a concrete plan that it would be the final piece. Once I made the decision with the board in April 2020 that it was time for me to step down, I felt more of a sense of freedom. I am feeling liberated.

It’s the right time and place for me as a human being. I turned 40 this year; I know myself more. It’s okay.

The conditions for making the work were really immediate. I just really wanted to keep artists working, asking myself, “How can I get money into their hands, and keep busy?

It was a beautiful balance of giving.

Isak Enquist, Katie Cassady, and Josh Martin dancing in an embrace in How to Say Goodbye

Josh Martin, Katie Cassady and Isak Enquist dancing in How to Say Goodbye

 

What has it meant to you to lead a company?

In the beginning it was about that desire– needing to be seen, validated, told I’m good at what I do. It was about loving what I do so much, loving making dances. I was creating a space for myself where I could make what I wanted to make.

Over the years, I learned how to be more empowered by that responsibility. I figured, “I might as well make the dances I want to make.”

 

You founded your own company in 2008. Since then your practice has expanded, and you work with theatre and many other companies. Why did you choose to say goodbye to the response. now?

I’m getting older and many of my interests and priorities have shifted. I don’t have the same energy and there’s not the same attention as when I was 20 and that’s totally okay. It’s just a shame because I personally feel that I’m making my best work now…I’m sifting through feelings that I’m not as relevant or as present, or maybe not as exciting?

I know that’s not entirely true but what I’m also working through right now is that even though I know that I have achieved many things with the company, there’s still a sense that I’ve failed.

“You couldn’t sustain it…” I compare myself sometimes to what other companies have achieved. I still do.

But really, the structure doesn’t serve me anymore creatively.  If I let go of it, I think I could embrace more of myself and I’m interested to see where that takes me.

 

I know there’s the challenging place of letting go of the company, of the frictions that exist and contributed to this moment. But looking at your 13 years of leadership in the dance community, what do you feel your impact has been?

A big part of it was working with the apprentices, which would be over 50 dancers, with five different cycles and at least 8-12 per cycle. And then there’s the random apprentices – the coffee dates, the emails to people reaching out. I’ve put a high value on being approachable.

I was really interested in supporting that transition for emerging artists from being a student to being a professional dancer. That really developed my love of teaching.

When I founded the company, I thought it would be about my work as a choreographer and I had these visions of touring the world. But as the years went by, it became more about teaching and how and who I work with. That was the beginning of #dancehappy, which started because I wanted to engage more with my community and allow them to experience dance.

I learned a lot from running a company. Now I’m interested in holding space for artists to realize what they want, to assure them that they can create their own template.

We have systems but you don’t always have to access that system to make the work and live well-balanced lives. I am interested in artists creating their careers on their own terms.

 

What was it like for you, creating a career within the dominant structure?

I have always struggled with trying to find my voice and a sense of identity. As a young dancer, I was told I was too jazzy, too modern, too classical. I have struggled often with wanting to be seen and validated.

As a person of colour it was impressed upon me that you can’t be a wallflower. You are visibly different, so when I look back on my career I realize that I have also been subconsciously dealing with that. Looking back, there are ways I have been talked to or advised that I now question.

For the longest time, many years, my constant narrative was “my work’s not good enough.” Being a solo woman, I feel that without a doubt. There are so many bad ass women out there, and they’re doing the bulk of the nurturing and teaching and giving. Now, I need to know I can do this on my own.

In the time I’ve been working, funding has changed quite a bit. That’s really positive and exciting to see. Although it’s not perfect – there are so many places in the world that don’t have these programs. So many places where people can’t even daydream about being an artist. It’s not a perfect system but it has allowed me to have a life that I am very truly grateful for. That’s what’s kept me going in the last couple of years. The changes are great. But once I decided to let go of the structure, I feel so much more freedom.

I have loved the whole journey. It’s taught me so much. It forces you to be accountable and responsible fiscally. It forced me to learn how to lead. And I believe I also had the right kind of personality for that role.

It has been about balancing admin and artistic. My advice: Don’t think that you have to have a company. It’s not for everybody.


So what are you going to do now?

What are we going to do right now?

I think that there are other people who will get to the root and possibly change it, the groundwork needed to shape a different future.

Everybody has a place in how we create change. I’m interested in the immediate because that’s what I really understand. How we cherish and honor the immediate relationships in our lives and how we create change through our daily actions.

It’s gonna be messy. And then it’s going to be really beautiful.

Dancer Katie Cassady in How to Say Goodbye

Dancer Katie Cassady in How to Say Goodbye. Photo: Burkeville Productions

How to Say Goodbye: the Final Chapter, choreographed by Amber Funk Barton is streaming free on April 29th only. Tickets from the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts: Live at the ‘Bolt.

For the first solos, visit: responsedance.com/how-to-say-goodbye