Dance Nation, which transfers to the Almeida after a well-received run in New York, is a tween dance-off story in the vein of Bring It On mashed together with The Vagina Monologues.
It follows a young dance troupe – six girls and a boy – as they prepare for the competition that will “cap off [their] prepubescent years”.
The girls are played by a mixed-age cast, with the eldest, Nancy Crane, playing at least 30-years below her actual age. It’s a little jarring at first, but it solves the problem of having a bunch of teenagers on stage, and allows writer Clare Barron to explore issues – masturbation, abuse, bodily functions – that would have been harrowing coming from an actual teenager.
Sassy, slightly creepy “Dance Teacher Pat” whips the girls into a frenzy over an upcoming competition, which, in classic underdog sports-drama style, they have a chance of winning thanks to their MVP Amina, whose dancing is so good it makes people cry.
Most of all it makes her teammate Zuzu cry because Zuzu desperately wants to be that good. But when she’s handed the starring role, as the “spirit of Gandhi”, she starts to unravel in a way that’s more than a little reminiscent of Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan.
There’s an easy, locker-room fluency between the characters, with free-flowing, often laugh-out-loud riffs on boys and parents and life, which makes it all the more jarring when they segue into dark, fractured monologues. One dancer dreams of destroying the men who leer at her on the street, another of being sealed in hermetic womb of his mother’s car.
Occasionally the girls are overtaken by what appears to be group hysteria, clawing at themselves, smearing their faces with period blood and literally crawling the walls, presumably a metaphor for the confused urges of early teenagedom.
At one point they stand in a row yelling the words “my pussy” over and over again, and I couldn’t help but spare a thought for the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts in the row in front, who was presumably having a torrid time.
There’s not actually a great deal of dancing for a play called Dance Nation, but when the competition begins, sparks fly – Amina really is good. These sections are buoyed by some excellent sound design, recreating the disorientating, claustrophobic atmosphere of a nightclub.
Dance Nation marks Barron as a young playwright to watch, a fierce, distinctive voice telling the stories of angry, confused young women that have – at least until recently – been largely absent from mainstream theatre.