“Talent is real”. That was one of my favourite takeaway lines from Clare Barron’s deliciously inventive and refreshingly raw script and there is real talent on display in Dance Nation, worthy of the highest praise. Everything here is note perfect, much like the peak level of performance the characters are being drilled to achieve in a quest for dance world dominance, one routine at a time.
“Deliciously inventive and refreshingly raw script”
Arriving in the UK at the Almeida on a wave of rave reviews, Bijan Sheibani’s (The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Young Vic; Barber Shop Chronicles by Inua Ellams) production is tinged with electric performances. There is also pertinent conversation and relevant thematic subtext, which elevates the drama and satisfies any lingering curiosity about the conceptual quirks because the concept is brave.
In a broad sense it is adult actors, non-dancers, playing 13-year-old dancers in America competing for regional and national prizes and it’s an attention grabbing pitch but beneath this curious stylistic choice is a shrewd dramatic choice that only serves to lift the text and tone.
Ambition is not a dirty word, not in the dance troupe the characters are a part of but there are plenty of other dirty words uttered by the cast and they are delivered with the relish and zeal of naughty children, away from watchful adult eyes. They are as weighty and dynamic as the manner in which they are being drilled to compete, despite their tender years and trappings of growing up.
This is one of the most deviously enjoyable aspects of the play because once we accept the cast are essentially kids we are taken back to our own sense of mischief and excitement as children, swearing, talking about sex, life and love as seriously as the adults who surrounded us, whilst unable to see life through anything more than a pre pubescent lens. Everything is a drama at that age, which only justifies Barron’s stylistic choice.
Personality traits are clearly identifiable from the outset and soon the cast are divided into complex and rounded but never confusing characters who riff on issues such as mental health, sexual identity and awareness, race, career goals, ambition, innocence and empowerment. Some of these hit you in the gut or grab you by the throat whilst others have you laughing, head in hands able to relate to your own folly of youth.
“Kayla Meikle’s monologue is a particular stand out, tinged with teenage angst, anger and an amazingly mature awareness of female empowerment that brought a roar of applause and then keen reflection”
However the hard and heavy moments are so well staged and delivered that they resonate deeply.
Kayla Meikle’s monologue is a particular stand out, tinged with teenage angst, anger and an amazingly mature awareness of female empowerment that brought a roar of applause and then keen reflection.
So in keeping with a dance contest score system here are some final lasting impressions.
- The set design is ace and beautifully impacts some key moments. Recreating a dance studio, with a wall of mirrors enhances how the audience absorbs the action, eliminating some blind spots but also adding to the themes. We are often forced to look at ourselves as much as we are the cast. I liked this duality.
- I got Jack Black “School Of Rock” vibes from Brendan Cowell’s depiction of the dance coach. This was a very good thing because School Of Rock…rocks.
- The choreography is essential to the entire piece but more so when considering that this also encompasses moving and behaving like kids. At times caution suddenly turns into confidence. It must’ve been challenging to condition but it was so genuinely believable.
- It is absolutely hilarious. Truly ROTFL funny.
- It’s a timely piece of full tilted girl power for the stage.
- It’s a 5/5 from me.