Julian Eaves reviews Clare Barron’s Dance Nation which is now playing at the Almeida Theatre.
Imagine ‘A Chorus Line’ re-written by Kathy Acker and you’re starting to get near where this remarkable and arresting new play is coming from and going towards. Clare Barron is the writer here, a formidable contemporary talent from the USA, who has been developing this story along with a number of leading US incubators – most recently Playwrights Horizons in New York City earlier this year. Now, at the ever-demanding Almeida, under the careful, respectful and boldly theatrical direction of Bijan Sheibani, working with ace choreographer Aline David, the show bursts into dark and menacing showbiz life in Islington.
Samal Blak’s design gives us a few perspex overlays and grinning dance school faces, before spiriting them away and immersing us in the grim black box of the dance studio that becomes all the locations summoned up by the incantatory text. The back wall comprises a line of identical floor-length rehearsal mirrors, precisely recalling Robin Wagner’s iconic set design for the epoch-making backstage Broadway musical. There is even a set of blinding white lines stretching across the floor, reminding us of ‘that’ white line for the chorus boys and girls to stand on. And, get this, a few minutes into the ‘opening number’, we actually get a hushed verbal quotations lifted straight out of the earlier show.
And there is something of a similarity in the trajectory offered by the simple ‘plot’ of this work: a bunch of kids gather together to present a production, while the competitive spirit gnaws away at their camaraderie, ultimately leaving just ‘one’ star to emerge. There are lots of ‘ensemble numbers’, where we discover lots about them, through their interactions, and these are inter-cut with solos – one of them quite terrifyingly long and wide-ranging (given in a stunningly virtuoso turn by Kayla Meikle) – in which the individual characters spread their verbal wings to open up something special about themselves.
Furthermore, there is a single arc to the action which is played out uninterrupted by an intermission – another innovation of ‘A Chorus Line’: the emotional vice of the pacing relentlessly closes on the audience (and, I shouldn’t wonder, the actors, too), taking us all the way up to its strangely unexpected and yet, on reflection (oh, those mirrors!), totally logical denouement. I bought the script in the foyer after the show and read it all the way through again on the train home: it is a masterpiece of concision and powerful insights threaded together with apparently careless, carefree abandon; there isn’t a superfluous line or action anywhere in the whole piece. It’s a marvel.
David’s terrifically pinpoint dance arrangements go from bland barre exercises all the way through the ‘typical’ dance school fare served up to include a very wide range of abilities (here, appositely demonstrated by the multi-level cast); it also takes us to some really rather good solo artists, who show promise and some facility, before ultimately landing us with the one really knock-out performer who just is ‘the star’, a devastating discovery moment conveyed in a suddenly ‘mature’ and expressive marriage of technique and expression. Nevertheless, in a characteristically subtle act of audience manipulation, we are early on induced by the story to laugh at the concept of stardom, which strategically disarms us from hunting it out in the byzantine relationships mapped out by willful, impassioned and insecure early teenage girls.
Oh, yes, there is one show that this one emphatically is NOT! ‘Annie’. There are no ‘real’ teens on display here (just as well, considering the braveness of the language, and the sometimes hysterical nature of Public Opinion in this country, not to mention that of the now once again witch-hunting US of A), and cuteness is anathema to Barron. Instead, grown-up actors are here playing perhaps their characters’ earlier selves, or are embodying a timeless version of the souls of these individuals passing through a particular chronological, developmental moment. From time to time, they subvert the strictness of this methodology, reminding us to step back and consider, reflect, think, ponder.
The boss of proceedings here, the director of the dance school, Pat, is possibly a repressed paedophile, who bullies his charges in a way that Michael Bennett would have been proud of. The girls themselves demonstrate astonishing forbearance, fear, fascination, and fidelity in the face of his rants and posing. Nancy Crane is a warm-hearted Maeve, Karla Crome is a poised and amazingly concentrated Amina, Sarah Hadland gives us a chipper and alert Sofia, Manjinder Virk is a quiet and pensive Connie. There is also one boy – isn’t there always – in this provincial troupe; Irfan Shamji’s awkward but self-possessed Luke. Ria Zmitrowicz is a stand-out presence as the increasingly tortured and self-destructive ZuZu. And a sequence of Moms is played – marvellously – by Miranda Foster, delighting in her virtuosity. The core of the show – or the pica? – really belongs to Kayla Meikle’s eternally surprising Ashlee, who is a kind of propagandist for what the star ultimately achieves, perhaps. Her tirade is possibly the most Acker-esque instance in a script that has many to choose from: because she speaks at such length, and with such rhetorical panache, it is possible to construct from it a fair bit of what the author may really want us to think. Maybe.
Who knows? At the end of the show, we were all saying how much we’d liked it, but how much trouble we would have if we attempted to describe – or explain – to people we knew just what it was that so pleased us in the content or the manner of presentation. And that is also part of this play’s remarkable power. It is like the moon (which also makes an appearance in the drama). How many times have you stood motionless on a still night, staring up at the full moon in the sky, captivated, feeling you just have to look, and look, and look, without knowing at all why, or having any particular thought in your head? I don’t know about you, but I’ve done that a lot, and I’m sure I will continue to do so. Who can say why? And yet, if someone were to take that experience away from my life, I would feel it impoverished and circumscribed, and be unhappy.
And I think, and feel, the same way about this play. Lee Curran lights it with a magisterial command of what stage lighting is all about (sets of lamps actually appear in one of the scenes as key features, reminding us that, like all great plays, this one is actually also ‘about’ theatre itself). Marc Teitler handles the sound and composed music with wonderful appropriateness. And Moritz Junge’s costumes are pinpoint accurate and real and perfect, from the leggings to the bags and the shoes. Bret Yount does the fight arrangements with a brutal sense of realism (echoing an often unforgiving text), and Giuseppe Cannas’s hair and makeup are exactly right. The dialects honed by Brett Tyne convince.
It’s a class act. I don’t know if Mr Hamlisch would approve, but Kathy would, I’m pretty sure, love it. I do, and I hope you do, too.
Until 26 October 2018