Inhabiting the headspace of 13-year-old dancers is just one of the challenges the cast of Dance Nation broached in this “crushingly funny satire” turning a feminist lens on ambition, adolescence, desire and friendship.
Dance Nation is a pageant of ferocious girl power
Rehearsals for the “part-Dance Moms, part-Hunger Games” comedy-drama Dance Nation are in full swing when Adelaide actor Amber McMahon takes time out to talk to CityMag.
“It’s such a physical show, so we are all being put to the task by Larissa [McGowan], our choreographer,” she says.
“We’re actually kind of working as dance troupe and that’s such a fantastic way to bond as a cast. As a bunch of untrained dancers, we need all the time we can get!
“These dance pieces stand alone in all their glory and outrageousness but they’re also integral to the plot and the style of the piece.”
Learning the dance steps is just one of the challenges facing each of the all-adult cast members of Dance Nation, a co-production by State Theatre Company of SA and Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre.
Another one is stepping into the heart- and head-space of a 13-year-old.
Written by American playwright Clare Barron and shortlisted for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Dance Nation sees a group of competitive young dancers fighting for a place in the national finals. State Theatre, which is presenting the play as part of the 2020 Adelaide Festival program, describes it as a “crushingly funny satire” that turns a feminist lens on ambition, adolescence, desire and friendship.
“This is a defiantly female show,” a Daily Review critic wrote of another production of the work in Melbourne last year. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word ‘pussy’ used so often, or with such devastating, jubilant candour.”
This new production is being directed by Imara Savage (Mr Burns) with a cast that also includes Tara Morice of Strictly Ballroom fame, Adelaide actors Elena Carapetis and Tim Overton (as the sole young male dancer), and State Theatre artistic director Mitchell Butel – a four-time Helpmann Award-winning actor – as “the evil dance teacher.”
Amber, previously seen in shows such as Windmill Theatre’s Girl Asleep, is Ashlee – a character cutely described as “future president of a post-apocalyptic USA.”
“Ashlee is really quite feisty but there’s a huge difference between her public persona and her private persona and I think that is something quite common throughout this group of girls – or indeed any group of girls – in that the stuff they’re battling with in their minds is not what they’re putting out there in the world,” the actor says.
“There are so many norms that dictate how they behave.
“Ashlee has all these massive ideas; she doesn’t know how to enact any them at this age but she knows that she will … she’s really interesting because of that. That kind of internal battle is quite beautiful in her.”
Dance Nation explores ideas about female shame – “how we play down certain things because of gender; how little girls are taught to behave” – but not in a didactic way, Amber says.
Like the girls at the centre of another Pulitzer Prize-nominated play presented in Adelaide last year by Rumpus, playwright Sarah DeLappe’s soccer-based story The Wolves, the girls in Dance Nation are all coming into themselves, navigating their power and their place in the world.
The play’s adult actors don’t seek to create a caricature of adolescence, but rather to draw on their own experiences to portray the highs and lows of this time of life. In a way, it acts as a kind of memory play.
Amber was already performing in plays by the time she was 13, but can recall watching the “cool girls” at her school dancing at recess and lunch, dreaming what it would be like to be part of that gang.
“We’ve all been that age and most of us still have a lot of that within us – you don’t forget who you were at that age.
“You’re still that person but you’ve learnt how to understand the world or yourself in a better way … it’s tapping into the reality of all those things and playing the stakes of it and I think when you’re that age the stakes are just so much higher.”
“Things feel way more visceral, heartfelt, terrifying, delightful – whatever it is, the stakes are just higher.
“You’ve also got that beautiful playfulness of kids – as adults, we edit so much of our physicality, and kids just don’t and that’s a really fun thing to play. The way they share ideas and jokes with their friends – they’re more intimate with that sort of stuff.”
Despite the publicity references to the cut-throat American reality show Dance Moms and the movie Hunger Games, Amber says Dance Nation has a different energy.
“So this play isn’t about that narky, competitive spirit and bitchiness among girls,” Amber says.
“It’s showing this beautiful friendship between everyone in the face of this really difficult thing that they’ve chosen to do.”
As Clare Barron says in her playwright’s comments: “Everyone is nice. Everyone is vulnerable. And everyone is trying their hardest.”