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REVIEW: Dance Nation by Clare Barron

The cast of Dance Nation at Red Stitch
Photo: Teresa Noble photography

Ashlee, Zuzu, Luke, Sofia, Maeve, Amina, Connie and Vanessa are a dance group of pre-teens on the cusp of puberty, dreaming of success as a dance competition takes them all across the United States. Dance Teacher Pat runs a tight ship, walking a fine line between being encouraging and squeezing all the enthusiasm out of his troupe. But this isn’t just a show about making your dreams come true, it’s about dealing with the pain of hormones and the physical strain of dancing, even at a young age.

We’re thrust into their world with a tap routine that even professionals would find strenuous – and it claims its first victim, with Vanessa’s leg shattered beyond repair. The visual is so striking and repulsive that it’s viscerally shocking and laugh-out-loud funny. Dance Nation is satire, yes, but at its heart it is a clear drama about growing up and becoming comfortable with your own body – as you learn its power and its weakness.

Director Maude Davey puts the ensemble through its paces, directing a freight train of a show, which hardly ever stops to catch its breath. The music is loud, the dance is frenetic and the young characters are so full of joy and the jumping beans of youth, it’s hilarious until it become awkward; and even as it slides into the pain and struggle of growing up, it becomes funny again.

The entire cast is great – a big group for the small space of Red Stitch, but it seems fitting for the piece; a dance group jammed together in a pressure cooker, their routines a kind of escape from what these kids are going through in life.

There’s some predictable stage mother stuff, but as all The Moms, Shayne Francis shows us wide variety of demanding and compassion with her various kids. Zoe Boesen’s Zuzu is the one who suffers the most, struggling with an eating disorder, even at one stage tearing at her skin with her teeth. Tariro Mavondo’s Amina is the quiet one in the back of the class, who slips onto centre stage and leaps ahead of the rest. Caroline Lee’s Ashlee has a monologue that will blow your socks off. Brett Cousins struts around the stage as Pat, at times seeming like a mentor and in moments stalking the girls like a predator.

Clare Springett’s Lighting and Peter Farnan’s Sound put you on stage with the troupe, dazzled by the lights, overwhelmed by the music. Adrienne Chisholm’s costumes understand these characters so well that there’s a layer of humour and understanding in just seeing them slouch onto stage with a backpack over the shoulder or sucking on a slurpee.

Clare Barron’s play is an hilarious and poignant look at the pain of puberty and the pain of dance; touching and affectionate, smart and completely off-the-wall. So awesome.

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