September is upon us and at this time of year, as the night’s draw in and the first signs of autumn appear, our thoughts turn to dance. For the last 14 years, the BBC’s behemoth dance show Strictly Come Dancing has dominated our screens, guiding the viewer from early autumn to Christmas with endless paso doble’s, tangos and foxtrots. And as the celebrities for the 2018 series set to work, the Almeida Theatre’s new play about American pre-teen dance troupe competitions has coincidentally, or perhaps purposefully, been scheduled to capitalise on the annual return of dance fever.
Set predominantly in a dance studio in middle America, Dance Nation follows the members of a dance troupe who enter a series of national competitions in the hope of winning the overall championship. Led by “Dance Teacher Pat” who choreographs a brand new number evoking the life and spirit of Gandhi, he pushes the team to live-up to the school’s reputation for producing winners, using the power of dance to heal the world. As Connie and Zuzu land the leading roles, star dancer Amina is left on the side-lines, but as their bodies and minds develop are any of the girls destined for a career in dance?
While Barron’s play mimics its teenage charges in not feeling fully-formed, it clearly draws on a variety of influences. There is a coming-of-age feel to the narrative, exploring that awkward transition between childhood and becoming a young adult where the mind and the imagination feel streets ahead of the body. The girls frequently think and talk about sex, love and their changing physiology in the down-time between sessions, but while they cringe and giggle about it, their bodies are far from ready for such adult experiences. Barron shows us this confusion in a striking scene from the middle of the play as three of the girls are shown simultaneously at home, one washing her blood-stained tights, one exploring her sexual responses and one still playing with toy horses.
Barron also explores this progress into adulthood through referenced to their increasingly competitive interactions with one another, belying the idea of them as a team, as well as their perception of the play’s unseen men. Ashlee (Kayla Meikle) has a forceful monologue in which she becomes increasingly aware of the male gaze appraising her 13-year old body and the defiance she feels she has to subdue. Likewise, as the pressure to win increases, the girls move seamlessly from congratulating each other’s successes to accusations of selfishness and arrogance, adopting cut-throat behaviours that signal the end of childhood. There’s even one nicely-handled flash-forward a decade on, as Connie (Manjinder Virk) celebrates her lasting friendship with Ashlee and the deep troubles they have shared in the ensuing years.
While old Broadway song and dance shows have been a nostalgic feature of the West End in recent years, with 42nd Street and An American in Paris among the revivals that have won plenty of plaudits, the roots of Clare Barron’s short play are actually in independent film, and it is here, rather than the stage, that the world of dancers, competition and ambition have been more purposefully explored. By merging examples of competitive dance with the behind-the-scenes locker-room drama of six girls and one boy on the cusp of adulthood, characters reveal their inner selves directly to the audience while participating in the rituals and rivalries of teenage life. Barron’s approach is reminiscent of the satirical documentary-style films such as I, Tonya, Best in Show and Strictly Ballroom that are driven by competition and the financial or talent barriers to individual ambition.
There is a purposefully grubby, unpolished look to Samal Blak’s design that picks out an underfunded and slightly careworn space. The rotating mirror and glitter curtained panels are just that bit too well used, the glass warped and stained, while Moritz Junge’s costume design for the competitor outfits have a cheap glitz, evoking the soulless conference rooms and halls where these events take place, dressed-up but tacky and a bit bleak. So much of that aesthetic is realistically drawn from the various documentaries we’ve seen on American child beauty pageants or the “mockumentary” film referenced above.
But there’s also an influence from the teen movies about preparing for a finale competition where the central narrative focuses on the protagonists’ will to win, and the various impediments they must overcome to triumph. The Pitch Perfect series is a prime example but also either version of Hairspray and even High School Musical, essentially anything in which the cast grapple with personal development issues while artistically competing for some kind of unifying end goal. Barron’s characters and scenario are deliberately less glamorous than these big screen examples, but the underlying desire to explore the confusing search for identity and future purpose is certainly the same.
Where Dance Nation fails is in bringing all of these strands together in a meaningful and dramatically satisfying way. There is a lot happening in Barron’s production which manages to be both engaging and alienating at the same time, without quite resolving the dilemma it creates by attempting to wrap a philosophical discussion in a narrative frame. The scenes focused on the dance competition, rehearsals and locker-room interaction feel much stronger than the rest of the play, unified by the need to move the story along while exploring the perspectives of its young teenage protagonists. When Barron focuses on character, she creates plenty of meaningful exchanges, loaded with empathy that bring the audience into the story as we are asked to weigh-up the difficulty of supporting the morale of the whole team while creating space for Amina to achieve her potential, even if it means trampling on her friends.
Like Ella Hickson’s The Writer from earlier this year, this production is on shakier ground when it branches into the surreal or makes jarring attempts to deliver its feminist messages – those messages are visible in the rest of the play and could have been better woven into the central story. Barron wants to experiment with technique and spotlight individual characters, allowing them to talk directly to the audience outside of the core story. This is a way to draw attention to the writer’s purpose and to help the audience to connect with the experience being presented, but here they feel like digressions, like another show trying to break-out from the middle.
Ashlee’s monologue about objectification, intelligence and the power she feels lies ahead of her is a great speech, it’s truthful, impassioned and inspiring, but it’s not clear enough how it applies to the wider team competition story Barron is telling. Young women are sexualised and taught to judge themselves from an early age, but this needs to be reflected properly in the main plot to underscore Ashlee’s concerns, to show the audience that in practice this happens to these girls in how they’re asked to dress, the make-up they have to wear and the suggestive dance moves choreographed by their male teacher. But Barron doesn’t draw the inference through the show, so this becomes an untethered monologue.
Likewise, a (presumed) fantasy sequence in which the new dance first becomes overtly erotic and then turns into a cannibalistic horror-film equally makes no sense in the overall piece, nor does the final section chant which attempts empowerment and respect for the female body. Again, as a stand-alone sections, choreographed by Aline David, they could be interesting but their relation to the consuming nature of dance, the outcomes of the story we’re being told and the imagination of teenage girls is much more obscure and makes for a frustratingly uneven experience.
Dance Nation has a pleasingly diverse cast, including actors with a broad age range, where each convincingly plays a teenage character and collectively create a group dynamic in which the individuals must work together. There’s a fine balance between the last flourish of childishness and young girls wanting to convey an impression of being older, more mature than they are which comes across really well in all the performances. The dance sequences, like the visual design, are purposefully a little blocky and after an opening number that feels like a memory – evoking something of The Entertainer and the flashback sequences from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane – the subsequent choreography is designed to amuse with the deadly seriousness with which the team perform balanced against their overall lack of finesse.
With the plot and the message occasionally pulling the play’s construction in different directions, there is less time to fully explore the character traits and experiences that Barron introduces, leaving plenty of interesting ideas unexplored. Some fair better than others and Karla Crome’s Amina has the most to do in exploring the isolating consequence of genuine talent that separates her from the rest of the group and her best friend ZuZu. Crowe’s earnest delivery feels just right for a young woman, notably given less time for non-dance activities, struggling to fit in but unable to downplay her abilities.
As Zuzu, Ria Zmitrowicz is a shy and occasionally sulky presence, a girl desperate to do well but with less talent than she would like. There is a subplot here about whether talent is innate or can be shaped with the right mentor, but Zmitrowicz emphasises the growing disillusion with dance, a dreaming loner with some difficult years of self-discovery ahead. By contrast Virk’s Connie is more confident but her centrality to the Gandhi dance is soon side-lined in favour of other stories, and we’re only given one tantalising psychological insight as she returns to an empty house – do her parents not care, do they disapprove, or have they just forgotten? Teasing these circumstances out would give us more insight into why Connie’s is so keen to dance.
Not all the characters are permitted a homelife and Miranda Foster offers a series of sketches as three ‘Dance Moms’, ZuZu’s pushy former dancer, Luke’s cosy mother and Maeve’s supportive parent, but it’s not clear what point Barron wants to make. Among the rest of the characters Sarah Hadland’s Sofia is the most interested in her developing body, while Nancy Crane’s Maeve is still more child than young woman. While they have interesting conversations and represent particular issues, they don’t feel entirely complete.
The male dynamic is also rather underdeveloped. Apart from Irfan Shamji’s Luke who is the only boy in the dance troupe which is barely referenced, Dance Teacher Pat is a highly ambiguous character but not in the way he could be. Brendan Cowell presents a complex figure who pushes the team to perform, a believer in tough-love but why he’s teaching and his overall role in the story is less clear. Barron doesn’t make him a predator – neither of the male characters is designed to reflect the issues she raises in Ashlee’s monologue – but nor does he really act as a catalyst for the events that unfold.
Dance Nation is a bit of a strange beast, a play that mixes straightforward dramatic narrative with more disruptive techniques but doesn’t quite marry the two aspects successfully. Like Against last year, a little more development time may have resolved some of these issues, helping to align the story arc with deeper characterisation to create a clearer picture of the complicated transition into womanhood. With plenty of influences from across film, there’s still a lot to take from Barron’s play, and as annual dance fever arrives in the UK once again and mingles with a year of female-led stories, Dance Nation is timely if not quite a ten from Len.
Dance Nation is at the Almeida Theatre until 6 October and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1 and Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.