Full disclosure: I have never been a prepubescent girl. And I suspect perhaps that those who have will feel a certain tang of recognition while watching US playwright Clare Barron’s ‘Dance Nation’ that I guess I didn’t.
Which is the source of some wistfulness, as I really loved her gently provocative study of a pre-teen American dance troupe, attendees at a non-specific school. As we meet them, they are struggling. They are buckling under the encroaches of the adult world, as exemplified by the ridiculously exacting demands of their coach, Dance Teacher Pat (Brendan Cowell). In the very first scene, one of the troupe is hospitalised, unable to cope with the physical pressure. And their view of the world is being drastically reshaped as they transition from childhood to adulthood via the violent shock of puberty and increasing awareness that each of them has a ‘pussy’ (as Barron’s dialogue endlessly, exuberantly puts it).
Though each of the girls – and the sole boy, Luke (Irfan Shamji, amusing wet blanket-y) – in the determinedly all-ages cast of Bijan Sheibani’s production gets their moment in the spotlight, ‘Dance Nation’ is, in essence, about the oblique rivalry between Amina (Karla Crome) and Zuzu (Ria Zmitrowicz).
Amina is cold, brilliant and shut-off. Zuzu is wracked with crippling self-doubt. Aged 13 or so, the actual difference between the way they conduct themselves is relatively minimal. Barron has a brilliant ear for the almost monotonous self-deprecation of young girl speak - rarely do either meaningfully articulate their feelings, instead communicating in bland affirmations that say little about how they feel.
However, their inner voices are given an outlet. Towards the end, there are some slightly oblique monologues from some of the ‘girls’, contextualising these years within much longer lives, suggesting that the anxiety and insecurity resulting from this period was utterly toxic.
But in Barron’s signature achievement, ‘Dance Nation’ segues into scenes that border on magical realism. At the gentler end, one girl, Maeve (Nancy Crane) offers a dreamy account of her belief that she has the ability to fly. Elsewhere, though, ‘Dance Nation’ seethes with maenad frenzy: most striking, a scene in which the girls physically devour Dance Teacher Pat, or another in which they pump themselves up by swapping lines of appalling sexualised violence (‘we’re gonna get pregnant with their babies and then we’re gonna rip those babies from our wombs and dash them on the rocks’).
I hesitate to call these fantasy sequences, because that suggests they’re not real. And I think maybe Barron is showing that this impressionable age is perhaps the last in which the borders between reality and fantasy are still porous. And that at the very least they have allegorical meaning – she is showing the violence of adulthood slowly forcing them to put away their childish things.
Despite being a lean 100 minutes in length, ‘Dance Nation’ feels like a baggy play, which recalls the deliberate longueurs of Barron’s countrywoman Annie Baker. The tone shifts all over the shop, from the brilliantly observed deadpan dialogue to wild fantasy violence to bits in which Barron and Sheibani – abetted by choreographer Aline David – fully embrace the show’s potential as a jovial school comedy about a ramshackle dance troupe (Dance Teacher Pat is like something out of a usually witty Will Ferrell film, while it is intrinsically funny that he is making the girls perform an interpretive dance about the life of Gandhi, who none of them has heard of).
It’s perhaps inevitably slightly uneven, but it’s held together by the lo-fi, end-of-pier razzle-dazzle of Sheibani and designer Samal Blak’s production, and, moreover, two excellent, anchoring performances from Crome and Zmitrowicz. They nail the superficially flat, but deeply meaning filled dialogue. They make us care deeply about events and relationships that could be seen as trivial. And they can dance.