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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Dance Nation
Almeida Theatre   Autumn 2018

Clare Barron’s new play is a thoughtful, breezy piece perfect for audiences raised on A Chorus Line while also bringing in new audiences weaned on the likes of Glee and The Next Step.

In fact Dance Nation is a convincing post-Glee statement as it ruthlesslessly strips away the glitz without losing the stars-in-in-their-eyes appeal of the inward-looking world of competitive dance schools.

I say inward-looking but of course, like any other group of pre-teen girls, the young hopefuls at this American dance school are also looking outwards and onwards - not only do the regional heats for the national trophy beckon but also the great competition of life.

Presided over by a no-nonsense world-weary dance master (Brendan Cowell) with occasional jolts from a pushy mother (Miranda Foster), the dancers gather for each session and view the challenges ahead of them poised on the cusp of childhood/womanhood.

Friends become rivals, winning overcomes the fun of it all as their dance master eggs them on to meet their potential. It's mesmerising to watch the girls test their friendships and discover (or deny) the sexual power growing within their bodies.

It's also a joy to see the top-rate cast assembled here, all the more remarkable given the age-blind casting. As the company rehearse for a piece on the unlikely theme of Gandhi and world peace, there's Karla Crome's Amina, the one with star potential who hasn’t really thought it through, pitted against Ri Zmitrowicz’s Zulu who thinks she wants it all but turns to self-harming.

Manjinder Virk’s Connie finds herself unexpectedly thrown into the spotlight as her Asian background awkwardly lands her the role of the great man himself, which threatens to split her from the mates who know they’ll never get a lead part yet aren’t bothered.

Sarah Hadland’s Sofia is more distracted by coming to terms with her periods, Nancy Crane’s Maeve wants to hold onto the magic of her inner world before it vanishes into the logic of adulthood, while Kayla Meikle’s Ashlee has already prepared her mental, physical and spiritual responses for when she transforms into an awakened sexual being in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Oh, and then there’s geeky Luke (Irfan Shamji), borne along with egalitarian abandon by the girls like any self-respecting male BFF, and yet whose smouldering longings only the audience will possibly ever know.

The casting of adults isn’t an echo back to Blue Remembered Hills but takes Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour one step on. These are kids, sure, but on a one-way trip to the women they will become, reality crashing into dreams of what they think they can achieve – or what others wish they can achieve.

In the meantime Cowell and Foster sensitively avoid cliches as the dance master and pushy mother who bookend the troupe – predators in any other situation but here gritting their teeth and hoping for the best in their girls.

Director Bijan Sheibani wisely allows cast and script to find each other, as does choreographer Aline David – the input of both being to keep the energy flowing, with text and movement neatly balanced at every point.

Samal Blak’s adaptable set is all tinsel and trophies with hidden corners that frame off-set scenes. Lee Curran’s lighting both highlights the big number while also cleverly delineating spaces without recourse to scenery.

All good stuff, and yet you can’t help feeling that it’s missing something, there's a nagging feeling that this slice of Americana for all its cultural accessibility might not guarantee a universal resonance.

The values and life challenges here certainly aren’t the exact fit offered by Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, for example, and while the majestic monologues (each character gets one, more or less)are utterly compelling arguments for empowerment, take away the sloganeering and all we’re left with is an empty punch in the air.

Still, none of this alters the fact that this is a supremely entertaining production that showcases an engaging talented cast who give their all.

Nick Awde

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Review -  Dance Nation - Almeida Theatre 2018  
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