In 1979, Judy Chicago’s installation ‘The Dinner Party’ first went on display. The artwork is made up of long white tables with each place setting marked out for a famous woman largely forgotten by history. Along with laying out an alternative historical record, the work is decorated with the traditionally feminine art form of embroidery, and on each of the plates are stylised images of vulvas.
Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, premiering at the Almeida in a production directed by Bijan Sheibani, is similar to Chicago’s famous work in the way it carefully marks out a place on stage for a set of individual women, takes seriously the female-led world of competitive dance classes, and returns frequently to thinking and shouting about vaginas.
Set in Ohio, Barron’s play follows a group of 13-year-olds (six girls and one boy) as they attempt to make it through regional and national finals. It dips in and out of the familiar teenage narratives of competing with your friends, not being the best in class, getting a first period and more, often though the characters delivering detailed soliloquies to the audience. There are a few moments when it looks like the story is heading into some brilliant blood-soaked supernatural Werewolf narrative, but on the whole it remains a relatively recognisable portrayal of being 13, only with added explicitness.
Brendan Cowell makes Dance Teacher Pat a perennially odd figure whose presence always feels unwelcome, even though it’s hard to pinpoint precisely when or how his behaviour oversteps an invisible mark. At times he’s simply eccentric – and very funny – when describing a fantastically crass dance routine based on the life of Gandhi or delivering a ‘motivational’ talk based on how many people are dying in the world at any given point. But at others his whole presence reverberates with threat.
As with Cowell’s other recent appearances in Yerma and Life of Galileo, it’s a brilliant performance. Similarly, Ria Zmitrowicz – who seems to be fantastic in every role she’s given – hits precisely the right balance of awkwardness and assuredness as Zuzu. Her relationship with the poised but conflicted Amina (Karla Crome) is one of most convincing parts of a production using adults to play children and one of the few fragments that made me want to see what a thirty year reunion between the characters would be like.
Ultimately, Dance Nation is a play that’s more about a feeling than a story. Barron has attempted to capture the feeling of being 13, of being unhinged hormonally and trying to feel at home in a shape-shifting body as much as a shape-shifting world. Added to this is the way this production, staged in 2018, hooks onto a feeling many people have right now that the future lies with young women and that, as the play’s advertising line has it: ‘a revolution is coming’.
But despite it’s obvious timeliness – including as a piece of programming by the Almeida – Dance Nation also seems dated in some respects, which is perhaps why it brings to mind Chicago’s now-iconic but also almost 40-year-old artwork. The end-of-play ensemble chanting about beautiful and powerful pussies is launched by one of the team looking at her own vagina using a hand mirror in the bathroom which, like the idea of liberation through tasting your own menstrual fluid, isn’t an especially revolutionary or new idea. The moment when one dancer smears her own period blood on her face before heading on stage seems less like a paganistic rite of womanhood and more just silly.
Similarly, the decision to make almost every scene where the teens talk in private about masturbation, virginity, circumcision or periods stops feeling radical relatively quickly (in fact, a much more interesting scene occurs when one girl attempting to masturbate is juxtaposed with another girl of the same age still playing with her plastic horse toys). I imagine this would have been very different if the production had used teenage actors, because that would have added a much more overt edge of discomfort for the mainly adult audience.
Instead, there are times when the whole play really does have the aura of teenagerness about it, but only in the sense of being out to shock by saying ‘cum’ or ‘asshole’. So if you’re an audience member who doesn’t find that vocab especially gasp-inducing, Dance Nation becomes hugely frustrating. Like a dinner party that never gets past the first course.
Dance Nation is on until 7 October 2018 at the Almeida. Click here for more details.