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Review: Reference Material at Northcote Town Hall Arts Centre

Review by Thomas Gregory

According to Alisdair Macindoe, the director and choreographer of “Reference Material”, the show is an “exploration of the conundrum of being relevant, humble, and developing a creative voice in a world saturated with media and technology.” It advertises itself as “a chaotic and humorous performance that reflects a world saturated by media technology.“ If these are the things it has aimed for, then something was lost in translation. What we can find is a sense of humour often lost in the art form, and an ability to truly appreciate what efforts are taken to bring a work to stage.

“Reference Material” opens to two dancers rolling around on an empty stage, with a narration that sounds recorded in a cafe, of a person perhaps trying to explain what the show will be. It is hard not to find it pretentious, or even sophomoric. When the narrator says “there needs to be light” a spotlight illuminates a portion of the empty stage and some audience members laugh.

They, perhaps, know what is coming.

As the two dancers continue to roll and twist on the stage, two things become apparent. First, that each movement of the two figures has been choreographed with the narration. Second, the narrator hasn’t actually explained anything; in fact, their words sound more like Lucky in “Waiting for Godot”.

Then it happens.

The third dancer arrives, perched on another performer in a dress that looks like it was made from plastic garbage bags, still talking into the microphone he has been talking into this whole time. For a second there is crackling with the microphone but, when it happens again, we realise the sound was designed to be heard.

It was a setup.

Over the next fifty minutes, we are taken on a journey. A highlighting of how much dance is also acting, memorization, and gymnastics. There are scenes that remind us of the eighties television workout tapes, and others that present dance as integral to spiritual tradition. It isn’t a history, but history is recognised.

The dancers for “Reference Material” are the best in the country. Rachel Coulson, Harrison Ritchie-Jones, and Geoffrey Watson hold our attention even when the tale they tell may not. They respond to each other and the world around them with such confidence and timing that you begin to accept that even things that may have been accidents were actually entirely intentional. At one point in the show, we are presented with the three dancers each taking turns to “lead” the others in improvised choreography. Even now I do not know how improvised it really was.

Geoffrey Watson also deserves special mention for taking the role of primary “narrator”. He is a quite gifted actor, sometimes performing two roles at one time when most of us would be too out of breath to even speak.

The staging of the performance is perfect. The stage is empty for the most part, safe for an occasional strip of matting or a spotlight to be avoided. The only prop to be mentioned, a solid ring of LED lighting, is used as a skirt, a halo, a sun, and even a metronome. At one point, completely unexpected, a little moment of wire-work occurs. Each of these elements keeps us amused but also unprepared - there is a feeling that around the corner anything could happen.

There are moments that dragged or fell flat. A gag in which dancers move about the stage while reciting names (at first, famous dancers and teachers, but then moving onto Bindi Irwin, Paul Hogan, and Michelle Obama) lasts twice as long as it needs to. Another scene, in which Watson provides a monologue over the top of Coulson’s “dance lesson”, reminds us why DVD commentaries lower the audio on the film. You cannot appreciate either if they are at the same level.

From the thirty-five-minute mark (we know because the performers explicitly tell us the time), the performance moves to a more conventional satire. A choreographer is preparing a team of dancers for their performance, offering absurd advice. They force the performers to hold positions for long periods, even causing the audience to gasp at one feat that seems impossible. They avoid any of the hard work themselves. The character is instantly recognisable, even to non-dancers.

Leaving “Reference Material”, the audience is full of cheer. While we are taught nothing about the history of dance, its place in this social media world, or where this performance lies in the context of art, we have certainly been entertained by the metatheatrical humour, the feats of physical prowess, and the finely-tuned spectacle we witnessed.

“Reference Material” runs until the 24th of April as part of the Darebin Arts Speakeasy. Warning that some elements of the show contain flashing lights.

Image Supplied


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