You have a dream. You want to win. You are prepared to fight anyone who stands in your way. But what if you are 12 and the people in your way are your friends? Do we get more or less ambitious as we grow up?
These are the issues raised by American writer Clare Barron in her award-winning play Dance Nation (Almeida Theatre), directed by Bijan Sheibani, which examines adolescent ambition, what it means to be best in a world that is unfair and how teenage anxieties surrounding sex, shame and stardom affect us as adults.
We are in small-town Ohio, following a pre-teen dance group comprising six girls and one boy, on the road to the national championships. Under the guidance of their dance teacher Pat, this troupe of young performers are putting together a sequined salute to Gandhi in order to win a local dance competition. While Amina is the more talented dancer, her friend Zuzu seems the more determined to pursue it as a career.
It sounds like familiar teen drama territory but the play is more subversive than that. It’s a ferocious and layered piece of writing that captures the girls' ambitions, the rituals of their friendship and the turbulence of puberty. As the group’s doubts and hopes collide, the conversation can be raw. It’s a mix of the brash, bizarre and inspired – the girls’ thoughts of pleasuring themselves and losing their virginity mingle with crude humour and moments of self-sacrifice and shame.
Few, if any, playwrights have found a way to give such vivid expression to the innermost thoughts of pre-pubescent girls, a much-overlooked part of the human condition in the theatre. But the play feels longer than its 105-minutes running time and seems unduly protracted in places, particularly in the middle – something which tighter pacing could have avoided. It is though, a perceptive account of the pain and wonder of growing up and the ways in which the young are programmed to behave.
Samal Blak’s trophy-lined studio set with its rotating glass panels enhances the realism of the piece.
But the most striking thing about the production is that it prevents the adult audiences from being as dismissive of teenage anxiety as they might by having grown up actors play the roles of children. The central figures are well played by Ria Zmitrowicz as the struggling Zuzu and Karla Crome as her more gifted friend Amina. Kayla Miekle makes a strong impression as Ashlee, revealing how a 13-year-old girl processes the pressure to be attractive, while wanting to be clever, while Sarah Hadland’s Sofia passes judgement on everything from the origins of dance to the “barbaric” business of men being circumcised, and when she has her first period onstage, uses her blood as warpaint. Completing a strong cast is Brendan Cowell, funny and ridiculous, as Pat, a choreographer who takes himself too seriously.
Certainly not a feelgood evening in the theatre, then, but a frank and honest portrayal of adolescence.
Plays until Saturday 6 October 2018 at Almeida Theatre, London.
Box office: 020 7359 4404Last modified: April 6, 2021