Where do we draw the line between our professional and our personal lives? How and when should we teach our kids about the harsh reality that is coming of age? What can you do when puberty isn’t the most exact of sciences? 

These are just a few of the questions presented by Clare Barron’s dark comedy Dance Nation. In an intimate, incredibly real world created by set designer Samal Blak, Bijan Sheibani directs a talented cast of 9 actors in an emotional roller coaster, where sweet naivety is soon corroded by a corrupt reality. 

Set in a contemporary dance class, the group, consisting of: Maeve (Nancy Crane), Amina (Karla Crome), Sofia (Sarah Hadland), Ashley (Kayla Meikle), Luke (Irfan Shamji), Connie (Manjinder Virk) and Zuzu (Ria Zmitrowicz). Led by their teacher Brendan Cowell, they strive to be the best they can be – or for some – as their parents want them to be. The ultimate goal is to win awards and be the best dancers in the world, but at what cost? 

Dance Nation is beautifully written, and ensures that your connection to the world of the play and sympathy for its characters strengthens throughout. Through a single change in lighting state you can be taken from a thirteen-year-old girls’ locker room to the harsh reality of the early stages of teenage anxiety. I have often read in reviews the statement: “I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry”. Dance Nation qualifies for such description, as within Meikle’s monologue, a full audience had simmered down, professing guilt for even thinking of laughing at such a shocking article. This was perfectly realised by Meikle’s penultimate thought: “What do I do with all this power?” 

Another notable performance comes from Gundog’s Zmitrowicz playing the part of Zuzu, who acts as a mouthpiece for the young girls who are struggling with the pressures of their craft. On the surface, Zuzu’s  problems seem to be trivial. However, when more and more pressure is accumulated and dumped upon her shoulders, serious mental and physical consequences come to light. Zmitrowicz and Shamji (who plays Luke), reveal to us the innocence and fragility of youth. As Luke asks Zuzu how she imagines losing her virginity, Zuzu’s response is somewhat fantastical, as she imagines herself as an enchantress in a film.

The expectations and requirements of the performing arts industry are like a Casino where the odds are never going to be in your favour. The physical exertion demands tirelessness, however, no-one said it would be easy, and hopes and dreams keep artists struggling on. But when does this struggle ever stop? Emma Dyson, Spotlight’s careers expert, recently responded to this question in an interview: ‘What is the worst mistake actors can make?’ with: “Not looking after themselves, not working out, not eating well, not networking, I think all of these things, the actor has to do that. It is part of their homework.” This is the exact dilemma that creates mental instabilities within performers. Whether it be eating disorders to maintain image or severe anxiety and depression caused by impossible expectations, the arts industry cannot continue to encourage and pressure young people to follow their passions while neglecting their physical and mental needs.

Therefore, I implore any parent considering pressuring their child into a competitive and potentially dangerous career in the arts to go and see Dance Nation, so that they may experience the spine-chilling and genuinely morbid effects that the industry can have on teenage talent.

Dance Nation is playing at the Almeida from until October 6th. For further information and tickets click here. 

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner