FringeReview UK 2018
Directed by Bijan Sheibani choreographed by Aline David with a set designed by Samal Blak it’s a space that dissolves and fills. Lee Curran’s lighting is rather magical. Marc Teitler’s sound blares disco. Mortiz Junge provides the baby-pink-and-navy uniforms and ballet outfits.
Anything might explode in the next hundred-and-five minutes. It’s not just the already-celebrated wildness that catches either: whether identity, friendship, intimacy, hormonal changes, the scalloped edges of abuse in Dance Teacher Pat. Dance Nation – about a group of seven 11-13 year-old girls (and Luke) in a group-dance competition – itself explodes formally with a lot of barbaric yawps. In doing so it gleefully swallows and parodies TV shows and dance films, high-school proms, theatrical conventions and language.
Clare Barron’s award-winning 2016 play asks us what theatre and female identity are, fiercely and with a whoop we’ve not seen since – you could say The Girls of Perpetual Succour; but it’s more raw, not just primal. There’s a superb permission in depicting girls through their older selves, that is actors of several ages playing much younger girls. The two elide.
It’s more than a variation on Dennis Potter too. There’s an interdependent witness generated by women recalling fragile intimacies, what cuspal adolescence meant for them. That’s in between the adrenalin-charged affirmations and dances, and an audience falling about – uneasily. And this troupe can dance.
Directed by Bijan Sheibani with an eye to keeping the discrete scenes moving, superbly choreographed by Aline David with a set designed by Samal Blak it’s a space that dissolves and fills. There’s figures, props (suitcases, tables, basins of menstrual blood) and a set of mirror-reversed panels backstage that also give on to lit stage lines (Lee Curran’s lighting is rather magical) and a hanging of tinsel that enjoys one spectacular moment: in an quiet adult-talking but child-harking drive Pat and his wife are surrounded by what seem infinite skyscraper lights. Marc Teitler’s sound blares disco: sexualised music for pre-teens almost groomed into role. Mortiz Junge provides the baby-pink-and-navy uniforms and ballet outfits the girls alternate with. And there’s a pink-patterned downstage rim. At two points a mirrored panel revolves showing the hapless second-best Zuzu on a turquoise toilet self-harming.
There’s something terrifyingly collective in the title too, as if Barron’s interrogating the state of the nation through its adolescent girls. Or through what acts on them. The American national consciousness is something imposed in a way we’d find alien. A microcosm of its more liberal but still coercive ethos shivers through this play like a teen secret. And Dance Teacher Pat’s Ghandi theme the girls will dance to (and the Spirit of Ghandi) is as self-preening, virtue-signalling and as colonially insulting as Barron can come up with. Added to which Pat exhorts his class to recall other years’ groups, of those (like ’96) whose members might never have existed because they failed to win. Collectively, individually, you’re only as good as your trophy inscription. It’s chilling.
In this sheer kick of a play Barron’s at a slant to many other fast-emerging U.S. playwrights, a superbly-talented generation who opt for slow-moment naturalism. This year alone saw premieres by Annie Baker, Audrey Cefaly, Emily Schwend, Nina Segal and the slightly faster-paced Amy Herzog. Though there are other plays about women and sport to make it over to the UK, Barron’s different to any of these.
Through intercut slow scenes though, we’re afforded the intimacy of encounters, stand-alone deliveries of jaw-inspiring self-talks, shuddering fright, and occasionally acceptance. After an opening where possibly the most talented of them all, Vanessa, is permanently, bone-protrudingly injured – so her presence haunts them – Barron threads through the parodies of dance-class coaching.
This includes the meanly flawed Pat, superbly realised by Brenda Cowell who judges his heft, lightness, weariness and snappy brutality perfectly. Having creating for Ria Zmitrowicz’s nervy, high-talented high-anxiety Zuzu the secondary Spirit of Ghandi role, he then picks her apart so she starts disintegrating. At one point he’s forced to give Zuzu a pep-talk – by Zuzu’s ex-dance-star mother – after continually tearing her down. But is it perhaps too late?
Zmitrowicz cuts a memorably vulnerable figure but one showing sudden resolution where needed, an opt-out clause of collective desires. Zuzu’s panicky crumbling tightens unbearably throughout most of the play, and Zmitrowicz’s superb. Zmitrowicz’s confrontation with Cowell too is one of the two key teacher/student relationships that allow the uneasy contrasts Pat sets up to invade the friendship of the two most talented girls. Everything with Sheibani and David turns on a moment of scream, disaster or whoop.
Karla Crome’s Anima is equally fine. In her Anima starts warmly and hardens, gimleting herself out of sight of her peers as she tightens and tightens. To Zuzu’s request that they take a break fro each other, she finally accedes with a shrug. Her gradual morphing has to slough her guilt at winning, and being abruptly told to own her ruthlessness. Exhorting her to ‘want it’ in winning terms, Pat slaps Amina’s buttocks, a creepily complicit moment.
It’s Zuzu who gets one might say the ‘anima’ or soul part, and Barron’s sly referencing of what should be perhaps a more equal relationship bears witness to accident, chance decisions and the sheer arbitrariness of it all. And by contrast will power. Anima’s very talented but there’s a thousand as good, Pat sharply reminds her. This gets a little too close to triumph and will.
Irfan Shamji’s apparently nondescript Luke comes into his own in his decent empathy, Zmitrowicz and he conducting a state-of-their-art and dreams of future. It’s touching how everyone projects their sexuality both far into the future and screamingly, savagely now, in their collective chants. Kayla Meikle’s Ashlee stars an arc of affirmation and doubt quite early on that anchors her own apparent also-ran persona. It’s a virtuoso stand-alone one of the finest performances.
Sarah Hadland’s alert Sofia has a moment of sudden menstruation jut before the main dance, and a painful scene with her understanding mother gradually hinting from outside the bathroom what she might do. Hadland’s moments of cringe are like a rite of passage for all. Manjunder Virk’s talented Connie is both sensibly opinionated and close to the top of the pile, as well as the quickest to empathise. Barron’s ability to give each character a rationale in so brief a time might suggest some of the heltering mosaic we’re subject to; it’s worth it though.
Nancy Crane’s Maeve is by contrast the one who’s too old, less talented, and again brings Zuzu back by confiding one of the most lyrical slow moments when she recalls she once knew how to fly. It’s too grounded as it were to sound kooky and Crane’s unforgettable in just this monologue and elsewhere. It’s this kind of thing that makes you wonder where Barron might go next. Miranda Foster, the luckless Vanessa, plays all the Dance Moms with a contrast of weary or occasionally peppy comfort blanket.
The last words Barron has her troupe chant are at once subversive, exultantly earthy and thrilling. Finally though it’s a sloughing off of rivals after the final affirmatory shouting and the killer looks that show Barron’s wry, slightly dyspeptic look at a dance-form she clearly both admires and is appalled by. As an airborne metaphor for how you get to be grown-ups, what it does to you, it takes as it were some beating.