Review: Dance Nation

An ironic spin on the world of dance

By Leeor Adar 

Clare Barron’s Dance Nation is the kind of charming macabre well suited to the world of dance. Directed by the excellent Maude Davey and assistant director Angelica Clunes, I am not surprised to see Davey has injected her wacky charm into directing this work for Red Stitch. What you ultimately have is a glorious unicorn of a play performed by adults acting as children. The irony of the dance world through this lens is great, particularly as audiences will be well acquainted with the fierce and devastating early maturity for youngsters caught up in the competitive world of dance.

It all starts as expected, our herd of dancers preparing for a big competition for exposure and FAME! Peter Farnan’s sound design is perfect here, sound bites of sighing and breathing intersperse scene changes with Clare Springett’s sharp lighting design. We’re off to a good start with a formation of dancers’ legs waving about to an amused audience. The scene quickly descends into that macabre goo when one has severed her leg – the price of fame!

Before auditions for the leading role of Gandhi, a brilliant cliché of the creepster dance teacher Pat (Brett Cousins), it is evident friendship will be tested. Zuzu (Zoe Boesen) and Amina (Tariro Mavondo) are the two glory girls of the troupe, who somehow manage to sustain a level of sweetness up until the big first night of the competition.

Adrienne Chisholm’s set and costume design are perfectly sparkly and quirky, and you will enjoy seeing what she serves up for the competition. Choreographer Holly Durant sets us into a barrel of laughs with zombie dance moves and extra dagginess to boot.

The cast is fantastic, and the characters are completely engaging throughout. Natalie Gamsu’s odd young Maeve is downright the funniest of the bunch, and in the most unexpected ways. Somehow her subtle smile as the moon passing over Connie’s bedroom (played by Georgina Naidu) is a bit of a low-key show stealer. Caroline Lee’s monologue as the quietly ambitious and hyper-sexualised Ashlee is perhaps the greatest personal pep-talk I’ve ever heard, and Hannah Fredericksen’s tomboy/cool girl Sofia is utterly brazen and suitably goofy. Token dance boy, Luke, played by Casey Filips is delightfully at home amongst the feminine, waiting for a chance at Zuzu’s affection, and Zuzu’s dance mum (Shayne Francis) is the kind of child-soul-killer you’d see forcing Vaseline onto her child’s teeth in USA’s Dance Moms.

Despite all the laughs, Dance Nation has a litany of poignant moments for its characters. Sofia’s need to be tough is brought back down to earth when the most feminine of life occurrences strikes at a critical moment. Connie’s need to be seen is so vital to her, that her little heart breaks throughout the play are all the more tragic and are handled beautifully by Naidu. As events try and tear the dancers apart, they still manage to lift each other up by imagining themselves as they will be some day. I find that childlike wonder uplifting despite the gravity of adulthood weighing in upon their hopes and dreams.

Dance Nation runs until 14 April at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9544 8083.

Photograph: Teresa Noble