Review By Lisa Lanzi
What is success? What is success for females? What does success, and ambition, look like for thirteen year olds as they traverse a path encompassing elite dance, dance competitions and psychological battles with themselves and each other? Dance Nation is a mix of satire, comedy, high emotion, surreality, fluid timelines and social commentary and performed by adults in the guise of thirteen year olds which is surprisingly perfect, apt and at times tragically meaningful.
Dance Nation (a co-production from Belvoir and State Theatre Company SA) is an effortless package of excellence. Not to downplay the huge and successful team effort that has obviously been bestowed upon this production! Acting, movement, direction, choreography plus outstanding sound, set and lighting design is all seamlessly blended to bring Clare Barron’s ferocious writing to the stage and into our Australian consciousness.
This production marks the beginning of State Theatre Company SA’s 2020 season with Mitchell Butel now at the helm of the flagship company and his vision of making STCSA “the best multi-disciplinary theatre company in the country”. Butel also skilfully takes on the role of Dance Teacher Pat with tremendous presence, great physicality and some cringe worthy lines: “I want you to think about all the people in the world who are suffering and I want you to go out there and I want you to dance for them”. Channelling a touch of the abhorrent Abby Lee Miller from Dance Moms but with more subtle menace, the character demeans his dancers yet attempts to inspire them to smash their (his?) goals in dance competitions across America.
Each member of the cast is totally immersed in their role and contributes significantly to the cohesiveness of the production. Elena Carapetis appears initially as dancer Vanessa in a tragic situation with a truly hilarious delivery. Subsequently she performs the roles of several of the dancers’ mothers at different intervals with great subtlety and a variety of excellent American accents.
Amber McMahon, in a marvellously accomplished reading of Ashlee, delivers the standout monologue that touches on a crucial subject : the discomfort many women experience recognizing and accepting their power, success or talents in the face of the male gaze. Ashlee questions how this might play out if we actually owned that power and agreed with someone who gave us a compliment. Playwright Clare Barron has related this exact dilemma in her own life when a male reporter asked if she (as the playwright) had done it “what, all by yourself?” and Barron downplayed her stellar success to make this man feel at ease. I am sure many females in the audience can relate to this and at times may have done similar. During said monologue the seriousness of the subject is injected with lightness by some fun electronic vocal manipulation.
The role of the ‘star’ in Dance Nation is beautifully performed by Melbourne-based choreographer Yvette Lee. As Dance Teacher Pat’s favourite, Amina, this character is also tasked with owning her power and gifts, possibly at the expense of friendships. Amina’s friend and rival Zuzu (superb NIDA graduate Chika Ikogwe) traverses a similar path with a vastly different outcome. “People say I dance with a lot of grace and that I’m beautiful and above-average and stuff. Here’s what they don’t say. They don’t say I’m sensational.” These two characters are both passionate about dance but reminded me that dance is for everyone, at any level. It is a fact that many young people are thrust into a competitive arena, be that performing arts, sport or higher learning, where the joy of the pursuit can be lost along the way and the damage done to their psyche can be traumatic. At thirteen years old, can anyone be sure of what they really want?
Tara Morice and Rebecca Massey are both enthralling performers and as slightly older actors within a younger cast bring a magical quality to Barron’s ingenious ploy of thirteen year olds played by adult women in leotards. Morice as Sofia is the ‘sexual educator’ of the group but is highlighted later as a more fragile character when her period arrives just prior to a competition. Massey’s character, Maeve, is the dreamer and peacemaker with an element of the wise mystic. Both women are a boon to this production and it is a joy to watch their total commitment on stage. Rounding out the dance team are Tim Overton as token male dancer Luke and Emma Harvie as Connie. Both performers work well within this cast and their gentler characters are a fine counterpoint to the general uproar and conflict. Overton particularly lends a quiet nuance to his role and shines in his scenes with Zuzu as she dissects her future through the revelation of her dreams.
Imara Savage directs with a sure intelligence and has scrutinized all the layered aspects of this work so that an audience will ponder those layers long after lights down. Body image, ageism, the sexualisation of young girls, competition, the vagaries of success and the enigmas of talent and giftedness are all up for analysis. Kudos to STCSA and Belvoir for headlining a female playwright, female director and virtuosic, predominantly female cast. A stellar addition to the 2020 Adelaide Festival and commencement of State Theatre SA’s season.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.