Director Alison Walls’ version of Dance Nation by American playwright Clare Barron is the strongest work staged at the Court Theatre this season. Much of this rests on Barron’s script, which is a work of interiority in sharp focus. Headed by their stereotypically authoritarian dance teacher, a group of pre-adolescent tweens compete to win a dance competition. Over the course of the play, each of the teenagers recognises their place – or loss of place – within the cut-throat domain of the adult world. Crucially, puberty begins. For these characters, adolescence brings with it worries about the body, about mental health, about future prospects. The play shows these worries playing out in a series of vignettes as the tweenagers prepare to compete in the climactic competition.
Mark McEntyre’s set is the star of Court Theatre‘s production for me. In the centre of the set are numerous mirror panels, which distort the bodies of whoever is standing in front of them, and, for the audience, reflect us looking back on ourselves. Those of us sitting in the audience become distorted versions of our exteriors just as the pre-adolescent characters worry about the distortions of their own bodies, their own worries. This set is fairly nimbly used by director Alison Walls, though I at times wish transitions moved faster, were cleaner, or that different stage spaces could have been more isolated from each other.
Ultimately, Dance Nation is a production that above all relies on its cast (all adults playing the tweens). The highlight for me is Lizzie Tollemache as Ashlee. In the penultimate scene before the show’s interval, Tollemache approaches a genuinely brilliant monologue with gusto – it is both a provocation to the audience and the show’s manifesto, vulgar and disturbing in equal measure. The rest of the show can be vulgar and disturbing, too, but it’s also sensitive and delicately observed. Keagan Carr Fransch as Zuzu holds the show’s sensitive side together, delicately threading the needle between both halves of the show’s divide – tender and tense. Tom Eason brings a gentle energy to Luke, the sole boy in the dance troupe, and makes me laugh often, even when positioned in the background of scenes. For anyone that grew up dancing after school or on weekends, this show will be filled with flashback moments. Kira Josephson’s choreography had me cracking up with its evocation of stage challenge, of tacky contemporary dance competition, of Musical Theatre (the variety taught in classes). The choreography and overall physicality of the ensemble is well-complemented by William Burns’ dreamy sound design, though at times I wish that the sound design were a little less literal. It feels like the audio in this particular production has two modes, ‘normal’ and ‘weird,’ and I wished for some kind of distorted middle ground – dare I say it, something Lynchian.
If there is little to talk about in this review, it is only because the production is so tight. When it comes to questions of the wider arts ecology in Ōtautahi, I can’t help but note that there must have been less than a hundred people in my audience – and many of them left at half time. This indicates that the marketing for this show has been misdirected, and perhaps that the audience had no idea what they were getting into. The Court Theatre are continuing to take bold steps in
their role as taste-makers with this year’s programme. They need to hold the line going forward: be brave, and the audience for this work will step up. At the same time, Court Theatre need to support the wider arts ecology in Ōtautahi – the arts ecology that primes audiences to expect, appreciate, and want to see work like this. I’ll say it again: it’s the strongest work staged at Court Theatre this season. It’s just a shame there were so few people there.
The reviewer acknowledges The Press’ investigation into Court Theatre and supports the staff in their desire for a healthier work culture.
Dance Nation plays Court Theatre 23 September till 21 October, 2023.