Review: Dance Nation, Almeida Theatre

I loved Clare Barron’s Dance Nation at the Almeida but fear it might not get the audiences it deserves

“People don’t say they cry when they watch me dance.
When they watch Amina dance, they cry. I know.
Because I cry when I watch Amina dance.”

I saw a late preview of Dance Nation at the Almeida so I was going to hold off saying much about it. But the hypocrisy of Quentin Letts’ tweet about the show (search on Twitter if you must) roused me to action for it is a pretty damn fine piece of writing by US playwright Clare Barron, and a damn fine piece of theatre directed by Bijan Sheibani.

It uses the device of adults playing kids to delve into the world of competitive high school dance, investigating what it is like to be a 13 year old girl, to be caught up in the ferocity of cut-throat contest whilst also navigating the physical and emotional upheaval of becoming a teenager. It’s blistering, uncompromising stuff and so it is perhaps little surprise that it has ruffled the feathers of some terribly sensitive souls.

Maybe these are people who don’t know that kids swear. That girls have periods. That teenagers masturbate, and talk about masturbation with each other. Maybe they don’t care about the confusion that comes with realising sexual power in a world full of men who can’t control themselves. Maybe they simply can’t conceive that teenage angst is all too real unless Hamlet (played by a white man, natch) is spouting it. 

Who knows. But Barron and Sheibani excavate this so well here, casting a considerable range of ages that lends an aching quality to the moments when the girls’ adult selves step out of the play to reflect on what they had, what could have been, what they lost (Kayla Meikle and Nancy Crane both shine in this respect). And Karla Crome and Ria Zmitrowicz are both superb as best friends Amina and Zuzu, the painful awkwardness of watching them deal with their different dancing ability is just fearsome and heartbreaking and utterly fantastic.

But putting the attention-seeking antics of the Mail’s critic aside, how does the Almeida square progressive programming with the conservatism of a substantial portion of its audience? Is there enough of a new audience willing to make the trip down Upper Street, to brave what they might consider to be not necessarily the most welcoming of fellow audience members? I really hope so, because this feels so much like what the future of theatre should be like all the time.

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Marc Brenner
Dance Nation is booking at the Almeida Theatre until 6th October

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