Dance Nation, winner of multiple awards, is a Pulitzer-prize-nominated satire from US writer Clare Barron. Its Adelaide Festival 2020 season is a State Theatre Company and Belvoir Theatre co-production directed by Imara Savage (Mr Burns).
The play tells the story of a group of 13-year-olds managing the tortures of adolescence while training to compete in a national dance competition.
“Please, Lord, let it be me.” The team members are about to start rehearsing a new routine that could take them to the finals in Florida. Someone has to take the lead, a role everyone covets. Who will teacher Pat pick for the prized position? Everyone knows Amina is his favourite – she’s the best dancer, after all – but maybe this time he’ll give someone else a shot.
Zuzu, Amina’s bestie, is desperate to win the part but struggles with how to balance being both a friend and a competitor.
There are some familiar faces as well as some newcomers in the cast. Adults play the children: Tara Morice (Strictly Ballroom), Amber McMahon, Yvette Lee, Rebecca Massey, Emma Harvie, Chika Ikogwe and Tim Overton are all superb as the young dancers. Elena Carapetis takes on several roles as “The Moms” and Mitchell Butel (State Theatre’s new artistic director) is dance teacher Pat, scarily driven with a mission to take his company to the top.
Dance Nation’s creative team includes choreographer Larissa McGowan, lighting designer Alexander Berlage and composer Luke Smiles. Designer Jonathon Oxlade’s set and costumes are fabulous. The action takes place in a dance studio with mirrored walls that transform to reveal secrets, the dancers switching between red team tracksuits and over-the-top, attention-grabbing, highly embellished leotard ensembles as they move from locker-room chats to dance sequences.
Brief blackouts signal shifts in time and point of view as the characters interact with each other and also address the audience as they revisit their past and share dreams of their future.
This is a work that defies categorisation, featuring a mash-up of music and movement, interior monologues and more traditional scenes.
McGowan’s dance sequences are hilarious. From the gruesome sailor number that opens the show, to the cringingly awkward Indian-themed competition entry, the routines throb with the messy, uncontrolled energy of teens trying so hard to be the best of the best.
Raging hormones and a yearning to pledge allegiance to friendships that are already being tested results in an explosive environment. As Ashlee, Amber McMahon gives a striking performance of a girl becoming aware of her terrifying power over men.
The play explores teenage anxiety and self-doubt, body image and the sexualisation of young girls, and highlights the impossibility of striving for an ideal body that’s already perfect.
Dance Nation is a sometimes dark but often laugh-out-loud funny romp through the trials of growing into who you are. Some people won’t like you, and other people will be better than you, but what matters most is how you ride the waves.
Dance Nation is showing at Scott Theatre until March 7. It contains strong coarse language, adult themes, sexual references, loud sound effects, strobe effects, fake blood, smoke haze and theatrical effects.
The 2020 Adelaide Festival officially opens on Friday. See more InDaily, CityMag and SALIFE Festival stories here.