I loved Dance Nation, I absolutely loved it. It is radical stuff, both in content and in form. For, here, we follow a group of teenage girls (all played by adult women) in an American dance troupe who wrestle with the onset of puberty and the changes it brings to their emotions and bodies, as well as trying to navigate the perilous path to womanhood as naiveites fall away and the disappointment of adult life starts to loom large on the horizon.
And all of this is captured in a production that brims with dry humour, heart-breaking tiny tragedies and sudden bursts of surrealism, such as where the torrent of anger and sexual awakenings in these young women is dramatized in a feral orgy of vampiric blood-feasting.
Clare Barron has written a little masterpiece right here. Focusing a play about girls’ coming-of-age around a dance troupe may seem unoriginal but she has taken this familiar setting and instead of High School movie clichés and cliquey bitching, we spend time with a group of girls struggling with real pressures, whether they be strains on the bonds of friendship, first periods, mental health battles, and the weight that comes from realising their own ordinariness.
The writing is funny and provocative, and it’s showcased beautifully by director Bijan Sheibani – ballet routines at the barre are littered with whispers of ‘pussy’, and shared stories on the discovery of masturbation are juxtaposed achingly well with others playing with their collection of plastic horses.
But Claire contrasts these lighter moments with points where you feel like you’ve been stabbed through the heart: casual references to situations we would recognise as child abuse, violent episodes of self-harm, and explosive, confusing monologues that show these girls struggling to manage the surge of conflicting emotions within them.
God, I loved Dance Nation, I really, really did. I could on about how cleverly the elements are layered, how nuanced and important it is that each character is played by a non-teenage actress, how these women aren’t particularly great dancers… But I don’t want to ruin all your fun.
This is a great show. The cast is excellent, and I was particularly thrilled to see Ria Zmitrowicz on the stage again; she had wowed me earlier this year in Gundog at the Royal Court.
It’s also worth stating that the Almeida deserves huge credit for putting on this production. Yes, the play is a transfer from NYC where it garnered much praise, but this isn’t usual fayre for the Almeida audience and their scepticism is obvious in the empty seats that were around me in the stalls.
Sure, it’s disappointing to see (some) audiences steer clear of “women’s plays” (when they are so ready to accept “men’s stories” as the default and universally relevant). And, truthfully, seeing the empty seats got me thinking about wider issues such as individual theatre identities, programming, and audiences.
I don’t want to burden this review of Clare Barron’s masterstroke of a play with this wider debate, but I just want to say, I know empty seats make theatres nervous and understandably so. But if theatres hold their nerve and continue to program challenging, diverse voices, new audiences will come. And that’s very exciting.
And I can’t wait to see what Clare Barron writes next.
Almeida Theatre, London, to October 6, 2018.
Tickets from £10.
All production images by Marc Brenner.