There is no shortage of fiction about the strange, seething world of adolescent competitive dance/sports/singing groups, usually depicted as hothouses of ambition, pressure and jealousy. But Clare Barron‚Äôs raucous Dance Nation (receiving its UK premiere) brings something different. Like its characters, it‚Äôs unpredictable, mixed-up, funny and furious: a no-holds-barred exploration of the raw business of growing up and of contemporary western society‚Äôs contradictory demands of young women.
The focus is a dance troupe in Ohio whose members ‚ÄĒ six girls and one boy ‚ÄĒ are all around 13. They rehearse for the all-important National Talent Competition in a mirrored room bristling with reproachful trophies. Their coach, dance teacher Pat, is a horrific, hilarious creation (played with compelling creepiness by Brendan Cowell) who appears to have swallowed a book of motivational speaking. Cowell bounces, like a boxer, on his toes as he spouts terrifying guff at his young charges. ‚ÄúWill you be winners?‚ÄĚ he demands. ‚ÄúOr will you not even make it to The Wall‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ‚ÄĚ (The Wall being the place where previous victors‚Äô photos are displayed). Failure is not an option.
His plan to wow the judges is an ‚Äúacro-lyrical number‚ÄĚ about the legacy of Gandhi. His destructive power games in selecting, drilling and pushing his ‚ÄúGandhi‚ÄĚ form the narrative backbone. But Barron smashes this linear plotline up against something purposefully messier, as the drama suddenly flips into confessional monologues, scenes from the future or wild fantasy sequences.
The students‚Äô changing room conversation too seesaws between fear and defiance, self-deprecation and self-assertion, pets and sex. The result is a piece that, in form as well as subject, channels the turbulence, excitement and terror of puberty, particularly for young girls. It talks about menstrual blood and masturbation ‚ÄĒ the very fact that this feels daring is revealing. Meanwhile we see the damaging impact on impressionable minds of the drive for physical perfection and of the contradictory pressures to be both sexy and ‚Äúnice‚ÄĚ.
This strange, limbo-world is emphasised by having adult actors play the characters, so that both the child and the adult are present in their in-between selves. This is beautifully handled in Bijan Sheibani‚Äôs production. Particularly touching are Nancy Crane as the dreamy Maeve, Kayla Meikle as Ashlee (who has a fabulous self-assertive monologue), Karla Crome as the driven star Asmina and Ria Zmitrowicz as the more insecure Zuzu.
The play‚Äôs deliberate unruliness can be tricky to pull off and Sheibani‚Äôs staging could, in places, afford to be wilder. But this is a passionate, tender and defiant study of growing up in a confusing world.
To October 6, almeida.co.uk