February 26, 2020

Adelaide Festival – The energetic tango of youth, one step at a time

Dance Nation
by Clare Barron
State Theatre Company South Australia and Belvoir
In association with Adelaide Festival.
Scott Theatre, University of Adelaide.
February 25. Tickets $ 39 – $ 79. Bookings
Until March 7.
Belvoir season from March 14.

Shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize in 2019, Dance Nation is a funny, ferocious and closely-observed study of a group of pre-teen girls (and one boy) in a dance troupe competing in a series of play-offs to reach national prominence.

Writer Clare Barron explores, challenges and sometimes openly satirizes ideas of competition and excellence, confidence and self-esteem, motivation and single-mindedness. The world of dance is in a spin and the experience for this disparate group of adolescents is turbulent, painful, and contradictory. It is also sisterly, illuminating and a glimpse of their futures to come.

Casting a diverse group of older actors to play the dancers, Barron says : “Think of it as a ghost play, the actors’ older bodies are haunting these 13 year olds. We are getting to see who they grow up to be…At times we should be fully in 13 year old land with all its ridiculousness, pain and pleasure. And at other times we should be palpably aware of the actors’ real ages.”

Director Imara Savage has admirably brought this intense, dramatically unconventional script together with a terrific cast and creative team. From the madcap sailors’ dance in the opening scene (which leaves one of the dancers on the floor with a comically gory leg wound) to the scenes of teenage sexual curiosity, peer insecurity, parental inquisition and rage against the nascent beginnings of gender stereotyping, this production captures the play’s mercurial intelligence and energy.

Jonathan Oxlade’s set – essentially a dance rehearsal space surrounded by perspex mirrors and bright red surfaces, vibrantly lit in neon and strobe by Alexander Berlage – brings the action close and confronting. Oxlade’s favourite Seventies costumes are zany and endearing and choreographer Laurisa McGowan’s “acro-lyrical” World On Fire, a dance tribute to Mohandas Gandhi, is hilarious, complete with synth fanfares from composer Luke Smiles.

The performances are excellent. Chika Ikogwe and Yvette Lee’s portrayal of the rival dancers Zuzu and Amina captures the paradox of the star system. Tara Morice’s Sofia is bold in her sexual precocity and mortified by her menstruation. Elena Carapetis is memorable as a chorus of Moms egging their children on.

Tim Overton is spot-on as Luke, the beta male, and Mitchell Butel, in his first performance since becoming Artistic Director at State, is the martinet director, Dance Teacher Pat, a shrewdly comic Bob Fosse parody of the manipulative egoist playing favourites.

As the untalented Maeve, Rebecca Massey is key to the play’s random exploration of the vortex of unconscious life and sense of the cosmic, and Amber McMahon is outstanding as Ashlee, whose wolvish monologue – about her concealed, interior sense of power and agency – is a rallying call to arms.

“The energetic tango of youth, one step at a time”, The Australian, February 27, 2020. p.15.

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