Dance Nation at the Almeida Theatre
At some point, we’ve all had one foot firmly planted in the comforts of childhood and the other in the terrors of adult life, the between-ager years where self-perception starts to coalesce, polluted by a heightened awareness of the world and the world’s heightened awareness of us. Clare Barron’s Dance Nation explores this with a raw familiarity and often glorious filthiness, a hybrid coming-of-age comedy-sports drama that manages to subvert and circumvent the myriad clichés that arise in both genres.
Under the petty tyranny of Dance Teacher Pat (a wonderfully nasty and pathetic Brendan Cowell) a troupe of pre and not-so-prepubescent girls – and Luke – have their sights set on Tampa, trophies and personal triumph. Top of the class, as always, is Amina (Karla Crome), closely followed by best friend Zuzu (Ria Zitrowicz), their relationship perilously resting on the altar of ambition.
It should be said that director Bijan Shebani – and a game cast – hasn’t copped out when it comes to the dancing. Working with choreographer Aline David, the production contains multiple full-on routines that, as well as being genuinely impressive, contain the same humour, weirdness and character as the script.
There is a far inferior version of this play that sentimentally looks at the movement into womanhood and the bonds that these girls – and Luke – make learning to dance. Barron isn’t interested in portraying that journey as a linear progression, however, placing nascent masturbation next to the earnest enjoyment of toy horses. No clean shift from child to adult, only the slow and messy process of shedding limbs and layers until you’re the same but different.
All this is, of course, doubly, triply, infinitely harder for young girls, who have ass-slapping teachers and leering bystanders trying to shame and claim their bodies – which are bleeding and bubbling in ways previously unknown – before they’ve even had a chance to get to grips with how they feel about themselves.
But while the playwright doesn’t shy away from showing this reality, neither is she willing to make her girls prey. They are – in the words of the casting note – fuelled by a “pagan feral-ness and ferocity”, with scenes of vampiric madness and ritualistic friendship, and monologues brimming with the inchoate, hard-fought wisdom of their future selves (all the teens are played by adults).
It is in these monologues that the play truly shines, from Zitrowicz’s heartbreakingly self-aware acknowledgement of her unsensational talent to Crome’s fierce and focused closer. Best is Kayla Meikle’s magnificent rallying cry, an expletive-laden statement of intent that doesn’t ignore or deny self-doubt and fear but pushes through it, right through until her Ashlee has the world’s head on the curb and is threatening to stomp.
Photo: Marc Brenner
Dance Nation is at the Almeida Theatre from 27th August until 6th October 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.