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Almeida Theatre, London
INITIALLY, Dance Nation seems to cover well-worn film and TV tropes — the individuals of a dance troupe enter a national competition and in consequence have to balance group loyalty with personal ambition, self-fulfilment and expectations.
But where Clare Barron’s play mines new terrain is in making the dancers prepubescent girls. Full of hopes and fears they are on the verge of adulthood, where their dawning sexuality is their new mantra.
They are by no means the embodiment of “sugar and spice” but flesh-and-blood individuals facing a world of hopes, demands and expectations. They have attitude aplenty but are unsure of where it belongs or how it should or can be used.
As when it was first produced earlier this year in New York, the brief nudity, fascination with genitals and the world of adult sexual expletives avoids any prurience by casting older women in the roles, who could be looking back on this bewildering time of change in their lives.
The clash of child and adult worlds is a source of much humour, nowhere more visible than in a triptych where one girl copes with her first period, another attempts self-arousal while the third plays with her farmyard animals.
Despite the presence of Brendan Cowell’s pushy dance teacher, who poses and swaggers round in the manner of a camp John Wayne, and a low-key nominal male member of the group, the stage is dominated by the six girls as they progress through the rounds of the competition with a new routine ludicrously based on Gandhi’s legacy.
Boys are largely discussed as a physical dance threat rather than an ambition, while their dawning sexuality is seen in adolescent female terms as a right and a power to be harnessed, explored and employed.
There are some stereotypical characterisations — the ambitious naturally gifted performer, the one pressured to fulfil a mother’s failed ambitions, the damaged individual hiding behind bravura, the outsider and the dreamer.
But the performances, Bijan Sheibani’s direction and the sharpness of the dialogue gives them an edge that belies simple categorisation. Both with their friends and on their own, these are unique characters facing up to a complex adult world.
Runs until October 6,box office: almeida.co.uk
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