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Dance Nation brings the anarchy of adolescence to Adelaide Festival

Dance Nation cast members Chika Ikogwe, Amber McMahon and Yvette Lee
Sia Duff
Dance Nation cast members Chika Ikogwe, Amber McMahon and Yvette Lee

US playwright Clare Barron’s Dance Nation has won awards and thrilled audiences with its subversive, honest exploration of gender, friendship and ageing. But it was for a more humble reason that director Imara Savage was drawn to the play’s first Australian production: she loves dancers.

“Even though I did theatre at school, I think in another life I would want to be a dancer,” Savage tells The Adelaide Review. “It’s like my fantasy life. I love pop [music] videos. I love going to see dance more than I love seeing theatre. I just think dancers are amazing.”

Trending US pop sensation Lizzo is mentioned several times throughout the conversation, with Savage still beaming after catching the singer on her recent Australian tour. “I think she’s incredible, but the dancers! I couldn’t even breathe. I was just watching them [thinking], “Oh my God, what they can do to their bodies’.”

Barron’s works often incorporate cross-artform performance in order to explore questions of gender, ambition, coming-of-age and friendship, particularly among young girls and women. I’ll Never Love Again (2016) is a performance of Barron’s own teenage diaries through a choral concert; Dirty Crusty (2019) is centred around a ballet recital; and Dance Nation (first performed off-Broadway in 2018) hinges on a dance pageant.

On reading the script, Savage, who also directed 2017 State Theatre Company and Belvoir co-production Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play, was immediately drawn to this element of Barron’s inimitable playwriting style. “I read it and was like, wow. Legitimately this is dramaturgically unlike anything I’ve ever read. It tests my own preconceptions about what narrative and what dramaturgy are, and I think that’s quite healthy.”

Imara Savage

In Dance Nation, Barron subverts the explorations of gender and performance of her previous works even further by calling for a cast of 40-, 50- and 60-year-olds to perform in a dance pageant as 14-year-olds. In this State Theatre Company and Belvoir co-production, the troupe includes Tara Morice (Strictly Ballroom), Amber McMahon (Girl Asleep) and Chika Ikogwe, a rising star from Sydney . This casting device allows for a deep scrutiny of body image, ageing and the sexualisation of young girls and women.

This is something Barron closely identifies with, telling the UK’s Financial Times of her meteoric success: ”Being a female playwright in your 20s is super fetishised. When I look ahead to my future, I have questions about whether I’m going to lose what made me powerful and attractive to people.” This unique perspective brings what Savage describes as “feeling like it is coming from inside the experience, rather than an outsider commentating on the experience”.

“What this work does so beautifully,” Savage says, “is that in some moments [the adult performers] are being the adolescents they were at that age, looking back with no sense of irony. Then there are other moments in the play [where they are] semi-reflecting on that time through their adult body, when they’re not doing the 12 hours of dance training every day. It’s quite extraordinary actually the way that Clare Barron has found a framework for shooting in and out of time and memory.”

Dance Nation is a really honest portrayal of what it is to be inside a very genuine friendship, where you can still feel tremendous jealousy for your friend’s success. It’s honest and also pathetic in a way.”

Dance is an art form that has always demanded performers work harder than anyone else, Savage says. She recalls being a theatre student at a performing arts school and being conscious of the “overwhelming feeling that [dancers] were in their prime already. They had a very limited window in which to achieve great things [before] their body will change”.

This inevitably creates a fierce competitiveness, which Dance Nation explores. In particular, the impact this has on friendships between young women and girls, a theme also examined in Rumpus Theatre’s 2019 production of indoor soccer dramedy The Wolves, by similarly-feted US playwright Sarah DeLappe.

“There are always new people that can step in and take your place,” Savage says, “and that person might be a friend. And if something happens to you, that might create an opportunity for someone else that turns into their big break.”

Dance Nation
Sia Duff

Savage recalls the Gore Vidal quote: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” She says, “Dance Nation is a really honest portrayal of what it is to be inside a very genuine friendship, where you can still feel tremendous jealousy for your friend’s success. It’s honest and also pathetic in a way.”

There is an important role for sound and lighting in this production to help capture the intensity of young girls, particularly in the heightened environment of the dance school. Savage speaks of colour palettes and even the choice of microphones: details that will help to harbour the whirlwind of youth but also make room for the confessional nature required to showcase Barron’s distortion of memory.

“I really like the anarchic quality of it actually,” Savage says. “It’s a weird mix of the real pageant, the anxiety and tension [that comes with] kicking in sync and not missing a beat for the dance performance and choreography, but on the other side of it it’s just kind of anarchy and a kind of punk. I like the contradiction.

“Often as a director you feel like you need to make things make sense. By doing that, you’re smoothing edges out, or you’re trying to mould things into a coherent whole. [With Dance Nation] I’m just interested in exploring the messiness of it. That’s not in a disparaging way at all, [I mean it] in the best possible way.

“I want to push further into the messiness.”

21 February – 7 March

Adelaide Festival:
Dance Nation

Kylie Maslen

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Kylie Maslen is a writer and critic from Kaurna/Adelaide. Her first book, Show Me Where It Hurts, is forthcoming with Text Publishing.

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