Dance Nation review (Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Melbourne)

While I may never have danced competitively, I have appeared resplendent in green satin tunic thing painstakingly stitched by my I-hate-sewing-mother (“you and your bloody ballet!”) and green and blue raffia arm things as a sea sprite: in the sort of seabed fantasy only inland Australia can contrive.

We’re talking battement tendus and pas de chats in 98 degree heat (a pre-Celsius world).

Sautés, relevés, retirés, pas de bourrées, rond de jambe à terres, tuck-in-your-derrières.

Just me, Lisa Nulty, Rosslyn Berrett, Kerry Kennedy and the two sons of Mrs Loy (the pianist), Peter and Rowan. The boys did not come willingly.

I was terrible. My petit jetés were too big, my grand battements too small. My arms made creaking sounds when we did Port de bras (“Fiona, what’s wrong with you?”).

These then, are the credentials I present for commenting on this play.

It speaks to me.

Clare Barron’s Dance Nation made me laugh. A lot.

It’s not just the overweening ambition of Dance Teacher Pat (Brett Cousins, another perfectly judged characterisation, the lines almost an afterthought), who’s clearly seen A Chorus Line one too many times.

It’s not just the ruthless ambition unleashed in a bunch of pre and pubescent girls (and one boy) at the thought of winning through to the Nationals (gasp of mingled yearning and killer intent).

It’s partly the simple cleverness of a cast of adults playing kids – hardly a ‘new’ idea (check out Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills on Youtube for the same conceit played to devastating effect), but fabulously effective here – which feels both subversive and lethal.

It’s the juxtaposition of remembered and felt childhood dreams, passions, failures, betrayals and injustices played within those same adult bodies, against jump to-the-future scenes of revelation and absolution.

This is a defiantly female show. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word ‘pussy’ used so often, or with such devastating, jubilant candour.

Director Maude Davey, calling on the skills refined over years in burlesque (and every other form of performance), uses her powers for good. Or maybe gold.

The opening routine (Holly Durante’s choreography has some very special moments) – legs akimbo all round – while a little more Tap than Strictly Ballet, was performed with the awful precision of synchronised swimming. And the blood bath that ensues (‘ballerina-down’), was worthy of that gruesome award winner Black Swan, and every bit as funny: sadly, Vanessa (Shayne Francis), will not be performing in the finals. Or, maybe, ever again.

But no time for sentiment in the cut-throat world of amateur dance, and Teacher Pat has a vision, a vision that may well rock the pointes of the dance world: Gandhi – the ballet. You’re feeling the awful shiver of anticipation with me, right?

What follows is comedy gold. Especially as worst-in-class (and my personal soul sister, clearly), Connie (Georgina Naidu) goes the full swami.

If the spluttering outrageousness of Gandhi-en-l’air (or close to) doesn’t do it for you, the competition between BFFLs Amina (Tariro Mavondo) and Zuzu (Zoe Boesen) is just a bit heart breaking. The toxic friendships of girlhood are alive and well it seems. Oddly (and I’m aware I’m walking out on a tightrope here), the youthful appearance of both actors slightly undermined their characters (how weird is that!). They’re both women who could play a teenager in any stage show without comment, but somehow, in this show, an older appearance adds to the poignancy of the respective character arcs. Or maybe it’s the centrality of that particular relationship, and one’s need to view it as more than teen flick fodder, because Hannah Fredericksen as Sofia looks similarly youthful and that presented no such problem. She’s just hilarious. Evil, but hilarious.

Casey Filips is Luke. A token male in all sorts of ways, defeated from the start, he’s such a sweetie, the heart bleeds.

Shayne Francis as everybody’s mothers (ok, ‘Moms’ – it’s an American script, but Davey has avoided accents, a wise decision in my opinion) rocks a number of looks (all meme worthy) from hippy to frustrated, ruthless ex-danceuse (set and costumes Adrienne Chisholm).

Natalie Gamsu as Maev is a sort of female Buster Keaton, just a few beats behind eternity. Clare Springett (Lighting) has contrived a beautiful little moon for her to float behind.

Sprayed throughout the piece are monologues of aggression and self-delusion – Ashlee’s (Caroline Lee) is both a smack in the face and a tickle of titillation:

I wish I could show you my ass, but I’m only thirteen

This is the section that starts to unravel a bit for me. I love what the monologues are saying, but sometimes they feel like afterthoughts, their perspective unclear. But it’s a minor quibble, and the 10 (20?) years later Return to Dance Nation ending, more than compensates.

A really snappy little show!

Dance Nation is at Red Stitch Actors’ Studio, Melbourne, until April 14.

Image credit: Teresa Noble

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