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A CurtainUp London Review
Dance Nation

"It's called World on Fire and it's about the legacy of Gandhi." — Pat
Dance Nation
The cast in Dance Nation (Photo: Marc Brenner)
Is age the last bastion of theatre blind casting? In the 1990s the UK was way behind America in casting a black actor in roles that were not specifically racially defined. I remember seeing a production of Noel Coward's Vortex in 2003 where some of the audience had trouble seeing Chiwetel Ejiofor as Francesca Annis and Michael Hadley's son here. The policy of colour blind casting has given us the opportunity to look at an actor's skills rather than his colour.

Recently directors have brought on gender blind casting with women playing the famous Shakespearean roles of Hamlet and Lear. It could be argued that one way gender blind casting was common in Shakespearean theatres with young boys taking the female roles, which must have been so much fun with boys playing girls, then in role disguised as boys, in plays like As You Like It and Twelfth Night.

So what about age-blind casting? And body-blind casting? Casting against type? Could a small round person succeed as Sir Andrew Aguecheek or Don Quixote? Clare Barron's play Dance Nation at the Almeida is about twelve year old girls whose dance class takes them into the world of early and intense competition. The issue is this: no twelve year old would have the acting skill to convey these intense roles with intimate revelations and a heavy dance agenda. So the answer is to use older actors. But then how is this different from Dennis Potter's 1979 play for the BBC Blue Remembered Hills where actors played children? Where Bijan Sheibani, the brilliant director of the innovative The Brothers Size, has challenged us, is in casting assorted mature women actors as the pre-pubescent dance class. As we observe "the children" we can also see the women they might become.

The troupe is assembled as the dance class opens with a jolly sailor dance number behind a gauze curtain, with photographic stills of the same dance in front of the actual dancers, but from behind their gloves and hats sparkling with sequins in the lights. The first casualty is Vanessa (Miranda Foster) whose ambition is thwarted when she breaks her leg: a reminder of the precarious nature of dance competition.

Dance Teacher Pat (Brendan Cowell) always given the three word soubriquet, spurs them on telling them about the stages they have to get through to the finals in the Boogie Down Grand Prix in Florida. As the coach gets them to voice their determination, they each say, "I hope I get it," a pastiche of the audition scene from A Chorus Line.

Miranda Foster plays the Dance Moms, those competitive helicopter parents who hover directing their child's performance. Zuzu (Ria Zmitrowicz) is saddled with a pushy mother and lacks confidence. Her mother when attacking Pat says that he's destroying her child, which of course doesn't help. Amina (Karla Crome) has more dance talent that Zuzu which creates tension between them.

Into this fiercely competitive world of training and rehearsal come the physical changes 11 to 14 year old girls are going through. They talk frankly about sex and masturbation, the onset of periods and losing their virginity. Sofia (Sarah Hadland) discovers her periods have started with seconds to go before she is due onstage to dance. She first panics and later daubs her face with menstrual blood like a fox hunting initiate. A lone boy Luke (Irfan Shamji) hangs out with the girls. Ashlee (Kayla Meikle) is memorable as a large black girl who grapples with concepts of beauty. The girls psyche themselves up for the dance competition against some boys "who do turns and flips, and are brilliant". We see the girls wheeling their stacking cases with shelves of cosmetics and touring essentials to painstakingly perfect their look.

Brendan Cowell's Dance Teacher Pat tells a girl who wants to leave that stopping the dance exercise will bring on puberty and that she will never get back to a dance career. Clare Barron's play is unexpected and delves into the dark side of adolescence using what 11 to 14 year olds secretly talk about among themselves. The dance is high energy and the performance nicely interweaves dance and dialogue giving us a lot to think about and highlighting the confusing physical and emotional changes that are puberty.

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Dance Nation
Written by Clare Barron
Directed by Bijan Sheibani
Starring: Brendan Cowell, Nancy Crane, Karla Crome, Miranda Foster, Sarah Hadland, Kayla Meikle, Irfan Shamji, Manjinder Virk, Ria Zmitrowicz
Set Design: Samal Blak
Costume Design: Moritz Junge
Sound and Composition: Marc Teitler
Choreographer: Aline David
Lighting: Lee Curran
Running time: 1 Hour 40 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 6th October 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th September 2018 performance at the Almeida, Almeida Street, London N1 1TA (Tube: The Angel)
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