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STAGE REVIEW: Dance Nation – A window on modern America

Dance Nation at the Almeida Theatre, London. Photo: Marc Brenner. - Credit: Archant

The award winning play fails to live up to the hype, says Tim Walker.

The first thing to be said about Clare Barron’s Dance Nation is that it isn’t going to get you boogying in the aisles. The title suggests an upbeat song and dance extravaganza with a jaunty, attractive, young cast, some big, bold numbers and maybe even a few chuckles along the way.

It is true there are some parallels to be made with A Chorus Line – the Broadway hit in which a series of dancers get to talk about their backstage trials and tribulations – but it hasn’t that show’s great redeeming feature of some bold, stirring numbers and any of the sense of feelgood that engendered.

This feels like the same show, only set in a home for manic depressives. Everyone is putting on a brave face, but no-one is remotely happy. This is feelbad rather than feelgood theatre.

In a grim little dance studio in an American flyover state, a tyrannical teacher named Pat – Brendan Cowell – bullies and cajoles a motley group of dancers. The emphasis is on their agony rather than their ecstasy.

The show has what amounts to age-blind casting in that some members of Pat’s class are played by actors who are getting on a bit. All well and good in normal circumstances, but not so practical when the dance routines are quite so strenuous.

The troupe consists of six girls and a boy named Luke, who is played by Irfan Shamji. There is the natural star in Amina – Karla Crome – and then there is Zuzu (Ria Zmitrowicz) who, unable to cope with always being second best, is driven to some acts of self-harm that are enacted in unsparing detail. They are all trying to put on a dance show about Gandhi – an inherently comical idea – but the problem is it keeps going off on tangents.

There are long conversations among the cast about issues such as masturbation and how they feel about their private parts, which, for all I know, may well take place in dance studios when there isn’t an audience out there, but it isn’t really the sort of thing that puts most theatre-goers at their ease or adds much to the sum of human knowledge.

The cast do what they can with it and the director Bijan Sheibani and choreographer Aline David have put on a version of the show that is as faithful to the original work as possible. It all keeps, too, to the plucky little Almeida Theatre’s remit to dare to be different and to put on unexpected works.

This particular piece has won awards and certainly has its admirers and I know only too well that the way to make myself sound clever as a critic is to drone on about how this is a window into the American psyche at a time of great change, there is a lot more to it than meets the eye, and it’s all very brave and bold etc.

Only that wouldn’t be to acknowledge that it is fundamentally a very boring piece of theatre, it doesn’t really go anywhere, it’s often quite frankly just plain embarrassing, and, all in all, it makes you wish you had stayed at home.

Dance Nation is playing at the Almeida Theatre, London, until October 6.