Red Stitch’s latest production Dance Nation by Clare Barron is a wild crazy ride skilfully directed by Maude Davey (Retro Futurismus, My Life in the Nude). This is black comedy done exceptionally well, if a tad controversial at times both in the writing and the execution. Focussing on a small troupe of 13yo dancers in America competing for the National Championships, the story weaves into unexpected territory yet thoroughly holds your focus for the 95 uninterrupted minutes. Six female actors and one male all aged between 21-60yo believably take us on their pre-pubescent journey as they push themselves artistically in a highly competitive environment, all whilst grappling with regular teen issues like sexuality, friendship and identity. They are supported by two adult characters, Dance Teacher Pat and Zuzu’s Mum. This highly talented ensemble immediately gives you clearly established characters alongside a sense of youthful communal pressure. The tremendous cast chemistry makes the most of the unison chanting or hysterical crescendo fervour that was both compelling and amusing to watch. The group panic and resulting meltdown chaos before the National showcase is simply hilarious. These sequences are beautifully contrasted with the tender duo exchanges which are equally electric, performed with heartfelt authenticity and connection.

Brett Cousins drolly plays Dance Teacher Pat whose bizarre pep talks set a great witty tone and suitably extended with comic interpretative dance sequences that are inventive and full of life. These highly vigorous scenes expertly contrast to the unexpected dark places that creep into the storyline which for the most part were gripping but on one or two occasions were unnecessarily overdone. In particular, the menstruation and self harm scenes had a sense of provocative overkill and perhaps a missed opportunity for more thorough and sensitive handling. Apart from this though, there were many crowning moments, in particular the confessional monologues that were delivered straight to the audience from almost all the dance crew. These allowed a creative segue from the individual’s 13yo self to adult reflection about the influence of this pressure cooker experience on their life afterwards. Caroline Lee’s bombastic and angry turn as Ashlee was simply brilliant, whilst Georgina Naidu’s Connie stilled the audience with her poignant revelation about living with depression after feeling like she was never good enough as a young girl. Zoe Boesen’s Zuzu sympathetically highlighted the struggle of maternal pressure and being reminded she was never going to be as good as her best friend, star talent Amina, played convincingly by Tariro Mavondo. Amina’s character serves as a potent reminder that dedication to being the best comes at a lonely cost. Later in a scene with lovesick Luke (the endearing Casey Phillips) Boesen’s innocent dream revelations really struck a chord. Hannah Fredicksen was thoroughly convincing as Sofia, traversing the fine line between sexual bravado and ingénue. Allowing these moments of insecurity to intersect the more daring moments showed skilful measure, and none more so than when Maeve (giftedly played by Natalie Gamsu) laments forgetting her skills of floating when she became an adult because that was when she felt her happiest and free.

Adrienne Chisholm’s uncomplicated set design immediately gave us a sense of location and fun with the brilliant gold sequin curtains at the back, portable ballet barres on stage left and right, with metallic reflective walls and framed dance crew portraits. Similarly, her sense of flair shone through with a range of costumes that allowed a sense of teen individuality and then unification during the vibrant dance numbers. Holly Durant’s choreographed sequences were dazzling, edgy and creatively fit the tone of the play. The opening number was uniquely inspired; an upside down air tap dance, and followed soon after by a facial interpretation number that was rhythmically hilarious. The Gandhi tribute was both suitably pretentious and funny in context before a devastating intentional crash. All of these production elements were well complimented by Peter Farnan’s raw modern sound design that allowed scene changes to hold their energy and then surprise with the new direction of mood.  There were a couple of clumsy blocking moments on the downstage floor and the upstage confrontation between Dance Teacher Pat and Zuzu’s mum that resulted in a disconnect for the audience.  But overall, the staging was fluid and tight from scene to scene – employing a sense of daring and surprise with each new story shift.

Dance Nation is intentionally provocative, well suited to the brave Davey and her collective who have not shied away from any aspect of the story to make us laugh or think.  The commitment and talent of the entire ensemble is wholly present, and everyone seemed like they were just having a damn fun fine time and this infectiously spread itself to the audience who chuckled and clapped their way continually throughout the performance. This play is challenging for both performers and audience, but the reward is to not just be tested but also uplifted, and most of all, impressed. Theatre that makes a bold impact is the best kind, and well done to Red Stitch for allowing this kind of play to debut here for us all to appreciate and certainly a lot to think about the pressure we place on young performers, especially women and how this has ramifications for years to come.

Images: Teresa Noble