American playwright Clare Barron takes us into the cut-throat world of competitive dance, following a troupe of fiercely ambitious pre-teens choreographing world domination, one dance routine at a time, through Philadelphia, Ohio and New Jersey through the National Finals at Tampa Bay Florida. The Almeida stage is adorned in tinsel and framed by trophies as we follow the troupe through dressing rooms and atges.
If it sounds like a sickly mix of exploitative reality TV shows, that's because it is: 'I was inspired by ‘Dance Moms'', Barron explains, 'a horrific reality TV show where a grown woman verbally abuses and bullies pre-teen girls and everyone’s kind of okay with it.'
But this niche of trashy TV is just a jumping off point for Barron, who weaves together one of the most eloquent, raw and wry portrayals of female adolescence we've seen on stage. The competitive background of dance competitions is like a petri dish for coming-of-age emotions as ambition, self esteem and the physical reality of pubescent bodies are thrown together in pursuit of a trophy.
It's an astute decision to limit the queasiness of prepubescents precociously writhing their way through routines and to cast the play with fully fledged adults (most of whom are on the amateur end of the dance spectrum). The comedy is mordant, with surreal twists of satire piercing through the sparkle and pageantry.
'How are your going to cap off your pre-pubescent years?' Demands Dance teacher Pat (Brendan Cowell), in a pep-talk peppered with fiery cliches. We cackle along as he leads the girls (and one obligatory boy) on a Ghandi-themed dance routine.
But interspersed in the comedy there are needles of blistering satire: one girl's self-harm and insecurity becomes a throbbing, blood-stained vampiric blaze. Later the fake blood is back when a first period coincides with a performance. Another girl muses on her own developing breasts and giddying power, before a shift in time shows us how her teenage years were spent cowed with depression and suicidal urges.
Barron captures the turmoil of puberty with such bite. And Director Bijan Sheibani (Brothers Size, Young Vic 2018) negotiates the shifts between sly comedy and blasts of poetry and embraces the discord between the fully-grown actors and their 13-year-old characters.
We especially enjoyed how chants about pussy power had a few grey-haired men in the audience tutting. The bolder, brasher moment are the best thing about this play, which channels the gutsy frankness of a Judy Blume novel through avant garde theatre.
|What||Dance Nation, Almeida Theatre review|
|Where||Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, Islington, London, N1 1TA | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Highbury & Islington (underground)|
27 Aug 18 – 06 Oct 18, 19:30 - 21:50, Matinees: 14.30 (Wed / Sat)
|Price||£10 - £39.50|
|Website||Click here to book|