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Review: One Thousand Promises (Melbourne Spoken Word)

The iconic band room at the back of the Worker’s Club in Fitzroy is usually a noisy place, filled with the ghosts of audience members who have passed through over the years. It’s an eclectic venue, attracting bands from punk and hardcore, through to local alt. country artists beguiling the plaid shirted locals sipping their craft beers. But the atmosphere for the One Thousand Promises show put on by Melbourne Spoken Word was one of quiet anticipation. The room, with its exposed beams and raised stage transformed into a theatre, with an attentive and far-less intoxicated crowd.

As a warm up to the main international act, we are treated to a revolving door of local poets and spoken word artists, hosted by the towering glamazon Lady Longdrop. She leads the crowd in a resounding ‘Om’ until we are centered and ready to receive the words on offer. Each poet has their own charm, not dissimilar to a monologue night, with a line up of characters. Brendan Bonsack tells us stories in poem form, with his hypnotic storytelling voice and deadpan subtle humour. Many would relate to his poet-works-in-an-office Dilbert-style recollections that illicit a knowing laugh from the crowd.

Charlotte Raymond brought passion in pint-sized form. Her three-part performance was inspiring, with her use of sign language a nod to the physical interpretation of words to come.

Carmen Main was the antidote to the saccharine, ‘inspirational’ life stories that seem to be in vogue in spoken word. She has cynicism down to a perfect art, with her sharp and witty observations. Her topics range from the humble avocado to street fighter and navigating break ups (“If all the water on the earth is a closed system, does that mean I have no tears left to cry?”) It is poetry that pulls no punches; a refreshing and humorous style. It is work that is stripped back, without the airs and graces of stuffy formalism. She is a crossover with the band room’s usual punters, in her checked shirt, slouching on stage, clutching her beer.

As the main act draws closer, we have our first taste of the genre-meld of dance and poetry, in the form of Anton Charles. He chronicles the relationship ordeals of a gay twenty-something through dance poetry. In an unexpected twist, he removes most of his clothes and dances his way through an erotic encounter and its aftermath. It’s affecting and effective. He works the stage like a professional and has mastered the art of projecting his spoken word, while utilising the whole stage. He’s a talented dancer and the work is emotive and engaging. Audiences should expect to see more from him as he emerges on the scene.

Finishing off the first half is the Australian National Slam champion, Arielle Cottingham in blue lipstick and afro hair displayed in all its glory. Arielle is also the perfect lead in to the features, with her unique blend of dance and spoken word. “My blood is made of C4 and fireworks”. It is a fiery and heartfelt performance, recounting a journey punctuated by music: “Music can fight that blue streak better than any therapy…I let my body detonate to Valerie [Amy Winehouse],” she intones as her body jerks and twists to the imagined rhythm.

When it came time for the features, there was a crackle of anticipation in the air. The duo Maddy Parker and Francesca Willow presented their show, One Thousand Promises and it didn’t disappoint. Any collaboration between art forms is intriguing. In this case, the pair developed a shared vocabulary; their rapport obvious and almost seamless.

With a focus on mental health, the pair move together at times; at other times one dances to echo the sentiments of the spoken word. In Personify My Depression, there is a stuttering syntax to the movements and words that offers a shifting meaning and a truthful insight into the physicality and experience of depression. The pair utilise all levels of the physical space, creating a dynamism that keeps us engaged and means we are never bored as they move between the pieces.

The soundtrack to the work is often a melancholic finger-picked guitar or piano riff, reminiscent of artists like Bon Iver. It is affecting and emotive, adding a depth to the presentation, that doesn’t stray into sentimentality.

During “How to be an introvert”, their work touches a nerve with some in the audience, with one woman needing an arm around the shoulder from a friend. It is an emotional journey that plucks the heartstrings with its relatability. Some of the poems touch on gender politics and feminism with humour and a topical exploration of the hoops women artists must often leap through to be successful.

Overall, the pairing is fresh and dynamic, but also emotionally affecting. The limited palette of movements helped to enhance the message of female empowerment and solidarity. At times the dance was a reflection of not only the shadow side of life (mimicry and puppetry), but also the way the arts liberates us to dance our way through the trials and difficulties of life, until we find our individual footing. It’s a heart-warming message that is a testament to the healing, unifying power of the arts.

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