In the programme notes to the State Theatre Company South Australia and Belvoir collaboration for the Adelaide Festival, of Dance Nation, performed at the Scott Theatre, director Imara Savage cites Siri Hustveldt on memory as being, “a dynamic associative network in the brain that is never quiet and is subject to revision each time we retrieve an old picture or old wounds.”
Just as memory and retelling stories was at the core of her previous State Theatre Company creation, Mr. Burns, set in post-apocalyptic America where the survivors entertained themselves by retelling and embellishing their favourite The Simpsons episodes, so too is Dance Nation about the memory of glory times and the gory times. Like Mr. Burns, Dance Nation is not bound by a classic narrative structure or character development. This theatre is conceptual with a dissonant sense of coming to terms with pre-pubescent girls caught up in the hyper-competitive world of dance competitions.
Imra Savage casts mature women to play the pre-pubescent girls to underscore the fact that this play is as much about the memories and ‘old wounds’ associated with the anxiety fueled world of dance competitions and dance moms as it is about the narrative on stage.
In another interview Savage said, “I’m just interested in exploring the messiness of it…I want to push further into the messiness.” And this sets the tone for Dance Nation. It is messy, anarchic, edgy and over the top confrontational. Herein lies the genius in Savage’s conceptual design. This crazy, dysfunctional set of conundrums that confronts her audience, are curiously satisfying.
Dance Nation juxtaposes dance sequences with the hyper-real inner voices of the protagonists which are brought to life through jagged monologues and dialogues and a synchronized, distorted voice-over which becomes grotesque and menacing as the inner demons take over.
Mitchell Butel, State Theatre Company’s new artistic director, plays Pat the Dance Teacher who wants to win Dance Competitions at all costs. He gives the girls football style locker room pep-talks, makes them idolize the previous winning teams; he cajoles and bullies. And he earnestly believes he knows what the judges are looking for and always has the winning formula. This year he will channel the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, and the results are hilariously farcical. The music for the choreography is an outrageously absurd blend of Bollywood and Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open” as the dancers create a Golden Lotus. To prepare them for the dance, Pat gets the girls to channel their own inner Gandhi and to meditate on the suffering in the world.
Savage uses this hyperbolic situation cleverly to underpin the fact that it is the girls on stage that are suffering too.
They are contending with their own inner demons, the fear of rejection, the need to impress, and their own over competitive “Dance Moms.”
They are pre-pubescent and they are suffering; they also have their sexual awakening to deal with. This is integral to the storyline and there are no taboos, nothing is off limits as menstruation, masturbation, orgasm and circumcision are discussed openly and candidly. So candidly, in fact that the audience feels queasy and uneasy.
Dance Nation is messy. Deliberately messy. But just like Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, it is meant to make you feel uneasy. It is meant to juxtapose the glitz, glamour and cheezy milky white smiles of dance competitions with the inner demons lurking inside these young impressionable bodies. It is meant to make you aware of the suffering that comes with the ‘success at all costs’ world of dance competitions.
This comes off so well because Imra Savage has assembled a brilliant cast. Oh, and there is a token male dancer, Luke, played by Tim Overton. Sometimes Pat remembers that Luke is in the room and calls his dancers, “citizens,’ but mostly, he is forgotten and becomes one of the girls. Luke learns a lot more than just dance moves; he learns more about female sexuality than most boys would be privy to at his age.
Jonathon Oxlade who designed so many good shows for Windmill including the coming of age Girl Asleep and School Dance, does it again for this coming of age show. It is worth seeing the show just for the lighting and set design.
This is a really good show. It is confronting. It is hilariously absurd. And it does tug on the memory of “old wounds.”
Adelaide Festival Review By Bob Becker
For tickets and show information head to the Adelaide Festival.