The Mitchell Butel era begins with Clare Barron’s Pulitzer Prize nominated work, Dance Nation, with the new artistic director starring as a tracksuit- clad dance coach with spirit fingers and lecherous hands who lords over a troupe of 13- year-old budding dancers with rich and turbulent inner lives.
Dance Nation opens like a scene from Glee, Pitch Perfect, or Bring It On, as a septet of glittery sailors bound onto the ruby stage to deliver their dance competition routine. When the music stops, though, and it is revealed that one competitor has suffered an open fracture above the knee, with the bone surrounded by pulsating blood, you realise that this will not be your standard tale of artistic competitive rivalry.
Dance Nation confronts previously unspoken taboos, including teenage abortions, childhood sexual abuse and premature sexualisation, first encounters with menstruation and masturbation, and dissociation from trauma. It manages to integrate these themes into a show that is simultaneously sometimes funny enough to leave you with a belly ache by the time the bows are taken. Anyone remotely familiar with noughties’ Pearl Jam imitators Creed will never be able to listen to their biggest single ‘Arms Wide Open’ again without laughing, or without laughing more than usual.
The dancers, played by adults of various ages, share their inner lives, either with their dance friends in the locker room, or to the audience via monologues. Each character is still determining where they sit in the social pecking order, still determining whether their parents are like other parents, whether their feelings, perceptions and experiences are normal or shameful.
Chika Igogwe’s desperately aspiring Zuzu and Yvette Lee’s prima donna Amina symbolise the torturous reality of success in the creative professions, a reality described by statistician Nassim Taleb as “Extremistan”. In Extremistan, the gulf between the minority that are successful and the masses that languish at the bottom is immense, but the prize of success is so tantalizing that abandoning the quest for the crown is difficult, and even if you do happen to be coronated as the winner, the cost of being isolated at the top is high.
State Theatre has assembled a cast of winners for Dance Nation, and they all deserve a ribbon. Rebecca Massey’s Ashlee, though, provoked the audience to spontaneously applaud at the conclusion of her demonic monologue on burgeoning feminine empowerment. Butel, too, channels all the director bullies that he has encountered in rehearsal rooms into his portrayal as Dance Teacher Pat. Lighting designer Alexander Berlage works wonders, enchanting the red change room lockers and transforming the wall to ceiling dance studio mirrors with light.
Dance Nation is profane, confronting, yet palpably current.
Reviewed performance: Tuesday 25 February 2020