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Dance Nation: Almeida Theatre

October 10, 2018

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 8th September 2018).

From “A Chorus Line,” through “Fame,” to “Glee” and “Dance Moms,” the USA has been crazy about telling the stories of “What I Did For Love.” To dance for an audience, whatever the cost.

Clare Barron’s angle is Dance Teacher Pat’s (Brendan Cowell) local after-school “Dance Company” (as we Brits have learned to call them). Seven pre-teen girls and one boy doing their all to beat the local competition and make it from ‘regionals’ to the ‘National‘ contest in Florida.

We get a series of decently choreographed (Aline David) routines, interspersed with monologues, duologues and occasional group dialogues as hopes, fears and intergroup friendships and rivalries are played out.

The twist is just how explicitly these children express themselves. Bodies are changing, hormones are kicking in and the scary dealings with menstruation, virginity and coming to terms with the roles they will play in their lives are the central themes. Chants of “pussy” (and descriptions of interactions and intensely personal relationships with them); stress and self-harm, irrationally built and demolished dreaming all play a part. It’s tough being 11, 12 and about to be pushed into a whole class above, where once the biggest fish must fight to rise again.

Given the content, it’s no real wonder that adults play the children. Unfortunately, to my mind at least, it rather loses the edge of innocence that may lend the words true verisimilitude. While I also accept there is a dimension of contrast in the decision, it’s actually distracting to consider the idea when the concept is that the children are discussing and expressing themselves through the medium of their childish bodies in the first place.

The other problem is that it all feels to knowing. I’m no expert in children, but the lines spoken seem to come from a far more adult perspective than might be expected – retrospective rather than in very current development. There’s more than a hint that the author doesn’t fully trust her own understanding of youngsters either, undermining further confidence in her central concept.

Still, the performances are mostly interesting. Stand-out dancer Amina (Karla Crome) deals with tricky situations with honesty. Pressured Zuzu (Ria Zmitrowicz) is lumbered with melodramatics in excess of even her tender years and manages some credibility.

Connie (Manjinder Virk) and Dance Teacher Pat have probably the most shocking scene of adult betraying child, and play it well. Token male child Luke (Irfan Shamji) isn’t given much to do – probably even surplus to the play itself – but makes the most of a neutered role.

The neat Samal Blak design of rehearsal mirrors and trophy shelves is effective, and Moritz Junge (costumes), Lee Curran (lighting) and Marc Teitler (sound and composition) lend the whole an authenticity the writing sometimes lacks.

And at that point, I was really prepared to let the production slide. It was mildly interesting, covered no new ground and shocked in a rather crass manner when intelligent alternatives were available. Still, at least it wasn’t dull.

Sadly, that was all totally undermined on my way home. Got off the underground train at my station, just as a delightful 6 year old girl also alighting with her family pipes up, “that journey was a right pain in the bottom.” Smackdown, Clare Barron. Sorry, but you lose, game, set and match to that, and nothing more can be said.

 

2 stars.

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