4 October 2018
Dance Nation (a play by Clare Barron)
reviewed by Dell Watson
Star rating **
Having read Dance Nation describe itself as “a ferocious exploration of youth, ambition and self-discovery”, I was rather looking forward to watching something truly awful and so far up itself that you would only be able to watch it from the Gods. In this I was disappointed. Partially.
The play itself is rather a mixed bag and I can see why some people would enjoy it. It spins around a pre-teen dance troupe in the opening throes of a national competition and puberty. The plot is simple, but the writing is startlingly good in places. Drama teachers seeking monologues for students will find an abundance of them here. Ria Zmitrowicz, giving the performance of the night, delivers her lines as the artless and awkward Zuzu with an endearing candour that trembles between pitiful and hilarious. Do not be lulled, however, into imagining that the girls in this play are insipid or passive. They are written and, for the most part, exuberantly performed as liberatingly and destructively feral. There is a strong and feverish energy, amplified by the lack of an interval and the effective mirror-based set.
Despite the play’s title, the cast are actors, not dancers. This is clear from the (blessedly infrequent) dance sections, where they all too convincingly dance like thirteen year olds with issues. Indeed, the play is not subtle, and one could play pubertal bingo with its plot points: parental pressure, tick; inappropriate crushes, tick; self-harm in the toilets, tick; attempts at masturbation, tick; getting a first period in an inconceivably awkward moment, bingo! Nonetheless, Clare Barron’s writing also brings moments of lightness to the savage roughness of Bijan Sheibani’s direction, his heavy handedness reaching its zenith when the backdrop shifts to reveal glimpses of a wolf during scenes of frenzied action.
There are two big mysteries to this production; both relate to age.
Firstly, the casting. Watching women of superior years prancing around like the teenagers they might have once been (three decades ago) is distracting. As actors fit roles rather than faces an audience expects to extend a little license to a cast and certainly no one expects actual thirteen year olds to be performing. One suspects however, that the Almeida went a little over the top with political correctness by apparently doing its casting while blind. When certain actors look, sound, and dance like older women pretending to be girls trying to become young women it gets a bit like a pre-Charles II Twelfth Night, but without the wit. The dodgy American accents do not help.
The second mystery of this production is that the recommended age for viewing is 16+. There is only one better audience for this play than young people around the age of thirteen, and that is their parents (although the two groups may not want to go together). The play is raw, unpolished, and tumultuous but it is also the kind of magnificent melodrama that GCSE drama productions aspire to. Sure, the language is a little strong, but why not let young teenagers hear it, if they haven’t heard it all before, in an environment that is trying to empower the shrill and developing voice of youth?
In summary, if you wish to be educated in the turmoil of adolescence, go. If you just want to watch good theatre, don’t.