am a

Mindy Parfitt and Amber Funk Barton
Credit: Tristan Brand

am a
At The Cultch (Vancity Culture Lab) until March 4, 2017

Posted February 22, 2017

The enigmatically titled am a, created by Amber Funk Barton (dancer/choreographer) and Mindy Parfitt (writer/director) could hardly have come at a better time for me, having reached an ‘interesting’ place in my own career.

“A celebration of being human. Of daring to succeed. Of daring to fail” is how the program describes this performance piece. Don’t expect a play in any ordinary sense but do expect to enjoy an insightful – and joyful – self-examination by two women who have reached a point in their lives at which they are beginning to wonder about dreams they didn’t pursue, doors they didn’t open. Is it too late?

Parfitt is strong and athletic at forty-six but, she says, becoming invisible; Barton, with a dancer’s lean and lovely body, wonders if she has been “hiding” herself behind dance. What else could she be doing with her life?

It begins – well, I won’t spoil the surprise about how exactly it begins – with a discussion about neuroplasticity, “the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life”. There are obvious medical applications: re-routing the brain to compensate for brain injury, stroke, spinal cord damage, etcetera. But as Parfitt and Barton explain, habits form something like ruts, or, in their words, “superhighways” in the brain and we tend to take the same roads all the time: it’s just easier. If you have always done something one way, how hard is it to avoid the well-worn route you’ve created over time and to take a less-travelled or never-before-travelled road?

Not easy, but possible, this dynamic duo tells us. It takes commitment, perseverance and practice but most of all the courage to risk failure. And these are two risk-taking women.

Mindy Parfitt
Credit: Tristan Brand

Not Since Jamie Long and Marcus Youssef’s Winners and Losers has there been such candid self-revelation made theatrical. Barton and Parfitt both go through a litany of “the things I hate about myself”: jealousy, lack of self-confidence, inadequacy, fearfulness – on and on. Really? It’s so weird hearing these two talented, articulate, fearless and beautiful women voice personal shortcomings that we cannot imagine them having. But, of course, we respond to them: their list entries match some of our own. We tick off our own list: check, check, check, as we hear them out.

Slaying those dragons and exploring new ways of being means teaching our brain new tricks and Barton and Parfitt show us how it’s done; while Parfitt may not be invited to join the Royal Winnipeg Ballet or Barton make her debut at La Scala, they stretch and reach – physically and psychically – and  in doing so, realize how strong and ‘neuroplastic’ they are.

And if you think 46 or 56 or 76 or 86 is too old to change, it’s not true.

The title comes from the Japanese Ama pearl divers, generally women and the best of them are reportedly in their 70s.

am a – a clever play on words (“I am a . . .” ) –  is not only inspiring but it’s visually exciting thanks to scenographer Ana Cappelluto with sound design by Antoine Bédard and fabulous video design by Cande Andrade. Parfitt and Barton move against a cinder brick wall with luscious colour projections moving behind them. At one point, Barton stands against the wall and when she moves a meter to her left, her ‘shadow’ remains behind her on the wall and begins to dance. This recurs three times and it’s mysterious and so cool. The whole show, dramaturged by Heidi Taylor and produced by Barton and Parfitt (“We aren’t really a company”) is completely engaging because of the honesty and humour of its co-creators. Parfitt has a sort of secret smile, as if she’s got something up her sleeve; Barton’s smile is just full-on happy.

If your brain is keeping you on a well-worn superhighway and you’d like to check out a different road, this show might give you an encouraging nudge. Neuroplasticity? It’s ours to use.