Dance Nation (Red Stitch) – theatre review

What price success? That’s the key question asked in Clare Barron’s Australian premiere satirical comedy Dance Nation.

Set in the US, the seven kids – six girls and one guy – are looking to replicate their local dance club’s previous successes. They want to make it all the way to the national dance championships. But first they have to navigate a series of regional finals, where victory is far from assured. They are driven by their unrelenting dance teacher Pat (Brett Cousins), who devises a routine based around  Indian independence activist Mahatma Gandhi.

Photo: Teresa Noble

One kid, Amina (Tariro Mavondo), clearly stands out. She’s typically the lead in new works, something that the other youngsters covet. On this occasion, though, she’s overlooked (although that isn’t the end of the matter), with two other girls anointed. One of them, Zuzu (Zoe Boesen), regards Amina as her best friend but is driven to succeed by her mother (Shayne Francis), who also used to be a dancer. Only Zuzu has a habit of messing up; and once she’s tapped, the pressure is on her big time. She doesn’t cope with that well.

All the young dancers are looking to make their way in the world. That involves dealing with all the issues teenagers face, including friendship, sexuality and feelings of inadequacy. Some handle the weight of expectation better than others. But inevitably they open up and expose their secrets and fears. While the others may dance in Amina’s shadow, that doesn’t mean she is home scot free either. Success can, of course, breed jealousy; but also complacency and arrogance.

The ideas explored and the situations presented in Dance Nation are largely compelling, even if at times they make for uncomfortable viewing. Strong language is commonplace. On occasions, the play shocks. In many instances, writer Barron and director Davey use humour (verbal and physical), but that’s mixed in with pathos and the production undoubtedly benefits as a result.

Photo: Teresa Noble

The play features a series of powerful performances, with each of the actors given time to shine. Holly Durant provides standout choreography. The simple gold and silver set (Adrienne Chisolm is set and costume designer) channels the required mood effortlessly.

Dance Nation is expressive, evocative and entertaining. It’s playing at Red Stitch Theatre, Melbourne until 14 April 2019.

Alex First

Other reviews you might enjoy: