An Encounter with Dance Nation at the Almeida

Photo by Marc Brenner

This Encounter with a performance is also an Encounter with a review, by Rosemary Waugh, to whom the first letter is addressed:

Hi Rosemary

I loved what you wrote about Dance Nation for Exeunt: I’d been dithering about whether or not to see it, at once enticed and put off by the fervent enthusiasm for it on twitter, and maybe were it not for this dialogue wouldn’t have bothered. But you wrote in that review of frustration: with the ways in which the play feels dated, not least in its focus on vaginas — putting you in the same camp as Quentin Letts, bizarrely, and that’s never a comfortable position to find yourself in. I wanted to see if I agreed — especially since I’m still mulling over your review of Emilia, also for Exeunt, in which you talk about the “oddly deflating” feeling you often have when watching “feminist theatre”. There were elements of your Emilia review I agreed with: that it “resembles a long-form feminist polemic”, for instance, “more concerned with making a point about, for example, the rise in racist anti-immigration attitudes post-Brexit vote than really telling the story of Emilia Bassano”, a Shakespearean trick sure, of using the language and paradigms of the day to narrate a past the better to illuminate the present, but one that sometimes made Emilia feel like a tickbox list of feminist keywords and 101 themes. But I’m also in the camp who found Emilia “energising and empowering”, and was glad to treat your review as the beginning of a dialogue, not the end of my interest.

So now I’ve seen Dance Nation, let’s talk. First of all, let’s talk about periods. “The moment when one dancer smears her own period blood on her face before heading on stage seems less like a paganistic rite of womanhood and more just silly.” Um, YES. This kind of thing felt silly when I started my period nearly three decades ago, and still feels silly now that my daughter is one period into her own relationship with the curse. But then the very fact that I colloquially call it the curse makes me more sympathetic to playwright Claire Barron wanting to include that scene. We have to get away from this idea of God’s curse inscribed in the bible, the way in which menstrual blood is considered unclean, the way in which cis women continue to be mortified because of their periods, the shame imposed on trans men for theirs. I think a lot about this amazing AMAZING video of Dominique Christina performing The Period Poem, which she wrote for her daughter when her daughter was humiliated by a boy simply for having her period. All of this makes me so angry I want to smear period blood on faces too — ideally the faces of cis men, not my own.

There’s an anger in Dance Nation too, and it’s the anger of girls who don’t know how to harness the power they feel coursing through their bodies, and the anger of women — the older actors playing those girls, the older woman writing them, this older woman watching from the audience — who know that patriarchy is designed to restrain that power, harness it the way a wild horse is harnessed, trammelling it into submission. I wonder if the play itself is trammelled by its venue: perhaps elsewhere it could be altogether more ferocious and strange. “There are a few moments when it looks like the story is heading into some brilliant blood-soaked supernatural Werewolf narrative, but on the whole it remains a relatively recognisable portrayal of being 13, only with added explicitness.” Again, I agree. And I wonder how much of the frustration you’re feeling is with the “obvious timeliness” of the production, the way in which it allows the Almeida to pretend it’s part of the revolution, when really it’s integral to the problem.

Hi Maddy,

I think you hit on about 30 good points here, but I’m going to start by trying to address just two.

I don’t know what Quentin Letts said about Dance Nation because after reading one especially unpleasant review by him at 11pm on a cold platform at Cardiff train station last Christmas, I vowed never to attempt such a depressing activity again. However, the ‘Quentin Letts of feminist theatre criticism’ isn’t far from how I often feel when, like you, seeing all the unbridled enthusiasm on Twitter for Emilia and Dance Nation. I get this pang of guilt that I’m being a ‘bad feminist’ if I don’t like something I am ‘supposed to’ (more on that later) and I say that not as a pity party for me, but because I think even that reflects something key about feminism and theatre, which is the expectation that it should be a unified category. I don’t suppose if a man just so happened to dislike a production by, say, Ivo van Hove or Robert Icke he would agonise over it the way I do if I don’t like something by, say, Carrie Cracknell.

I’m also aware that this misguided expectation that women automatically should like art made by other women leads to female artists getting a level of criticism they don’t deserve. By which I specifically mean that they get blamed for producing work that doesn’t ‘represent’ all women. As Sarah Manguso says in 300 Arguments: ‘After I publish an autobiographical essay, men accuse me of having tried and failed to present myself as likeable, and women accuse me of having tried and failed to represent them.’ So I realise the contradictions of apparently singling out Clare Barron’s work and making it seem like the fact I didn’t like it as much as the woman next to me is a problem, any more than it would be a problem if I liked Wild Ducks at the Almeida next month more or less than someone else. Because according to my own argument art by women doesn’t have to be liked by all women.

Which fits well with the first point I wanted to latch onto, which is that my general feelings of frustration did link partly to the programming of the play by the Almeida and also wider (emotional, semi-irrational) feelings I have about the recent trend in London theatres to programme explicitly feminist works (including, yes, Emilia). When I was watching Dance Nation, a phrase I once heard Natasha Tripney use, in reference to the National Theatre’s staging of Twelfth Night with a drag queen, kept coming back to me: ‘They’re flying the flag without owning the pole.’ What irked me about Dance Nation appearing at the Almeida was that it felt like such a blatant and very heavy-handed way of shouting WE HAVE NO PROBLEM AT ALL WITH WOMEN!! As if, in the face of criticisms regarding their prior male-orientated programming and, you know, rape scenes for added grit etc, they shuffled through some scripts and thought: right, this one ought to prove once and for all that we’re absolutely cool with women and vaginas and periods and pussies and and and… And it just had that ‘protesting too much’ quality to it.

And part of what annoyed me about that was how it made it clear that right now a deliberate attempt is being made to put on stage ‘plays for women’, which instead of making it seem like women are now welcome in theatre, somehow paradoxically confirms my worst fears regarding how utterly unwelcome we were previously and probably still are, because it turns out we’re a special interest category. I think I’ve expressed that clumsily, but one of the things about this type of ‘grab a hand mirror, girls’ theatre is just how much it makes feminist theatre appear like its own sub-category outside of the mainsteam and I keep thinking: all I said was maybe tone down the rape imagery, Rupert, not start programming an ode to menstruation…. I don’t know, really. I just know that when I was watching Dance Nation I felt kind of embarrassed, not because I’m embarrassed to have periods, but probably precisely because I’m not — and that somehow made me embarrassed on behalf of the London theatre scene. That it’s so utterly male-orientated and upper middle class in its sensibilities that it now — in 2018 — has to go through this consciousness-raising moment of vagina-based feminism so many, many decades after both women irl and other artistic industries did.

By which I mean that if you look at visual art (and absolutely by no means am I venerating the visual arts industry as being particularly politically progressive), it’s so utterly mainstream to have artists produce works that are explicitly sexual and female-focused that Tracey Emin is now a Royal Academician. Or the way Riot Grrrl bands threw their tampons into crowds so long ago it just wouldn’t be truly shocking any more. So in comparison the theatre world seems weirdly out-dated.

The biggest problem with that is that it means theatre is still missing out on much more nuanced, intersectional, modern debates and ideas surrounding feminism — ones that aren’t orientated on vaginas, for example. I also think that in the wider outside-the-theatre context it means the play, in terms of programming, loses some of its power. Because what’s being said on stage — whether that’s swearing, masturbation, periods — doesn’t come across as all that radical. Compare Dance Nation at the Almeida to, for example, any edition of Teen Vogue and the latter would be proving a much bolder and more up-to-date portrait of what teenage girls are interested in right now.

Which leads me (and I’ll make this brief, I promise) onto Point 2, which is that I agree with you that Dance Nation was made for adults. And that was something that irked me about it for two reasons. One, I felt annoyed that adult women (maybe men too) needed to use teenage girls basically as conduits to say or explore the things the adults wanted to. I bet if this had been a Purni Morrell show at the Unicorn, it would have been so different because then it would have been performed by 13 year olds and it would have been FOR 13 year olds. Two, I felt really fucking sad that adult women (and maybe men too) needed to use teenage girls basically as conduits to say or explore the things the adults wanted to. Because, as with the recent ‘everyone act normal and programme a female playwright talking about vaginas!’ act, it didn’t make me feel: ‘ah, look how far we’ve come.’ Instead, I felt: ‘look how far we haven’t come. We’re still uncomfortable with pouring out blood each month. Wow.’ And that’s when I find myself walking down Upper Street or Bankside filled with about as much enthusiasm for life as Hamlet…

Dear Rosemary

I come to your brilliant letter having just seen the news that Ivo van Hove is directing an adaptation of A Little Life, which I haven’t even read and still know that he’s the wrong person to do it.

Something neither of us have mentioned so far is that Dance Nation isn’t just a play written by a woman but a production directed by a man. Two experiences in the past few days: someone I know took her 17-year-old daughter to see it, who within five minutes of it starting leaned over to her mum and whispered, “a man directed this”. And in another conversation, someone reminded me of Marisa Carnesky’s amazing AMAZING Incredible Bleeding Woman: a show steeped in ritual, blood worship, magic and poetry. I wonder if the embarrassment you feel is — for all Bijan Shebani’s best intentions, and I’m sure they were his very best — embedded in the production itself. I wrote about Carnesky for Exeunt and described recognising in that show my own fiercely internalised misogyny in relation to menstruation. I see your point that women, feminists, talked this all out in the consciousness-raising era and a more inclusive feminism demands something less vagina-centric. But misogyny is still with us, still virulent, still lodged like an ice shard in the heart of things; theatre embodies that as much as the next industry.

So, directed by a man. One of those things I say and immediately think, what the fuck does that mean? In this instance it’s none of the things stereotypically associated with masculinity, like boldness or aggression or conviction. I’m thinking: a kind of gingerness. A tip-toeing around possibility, rather than a voluptuous embrace. Those wild scenes, when the girls become wolves, when the smearing of the blood happened, are so small, so contained! I realise there’s a taste thing coming in here: other people found those scenes way over the top. To me if felt stylised to the point of anaemia — all the blood drained out of it, and not in a usefully metaphoric way.

I’m also really interested in the fact that there’s a boy on stage throughout, who’s just there to be a quiet unrequited soft-eyed hopeless lover to everyone’s favourite character, ZuZu. I mean, oh the heteronormativity. Maybe I’m committing the critical sin here of describing the play I want to see rather than the play that is, but — like you said — Teen Vogue is the model here, and there’s a spectrum of queer experience that is going unrepresented that doesn’t have to be written to be conveyed in the production.

But maybe this is bringing us circular to the point you make about representation. Over the summer I read Naomi Alderman’s The Power and felt really conflicted when reading reviews that criticised it for having “no overt LGBTQ characters in the book”. If you want LGBTQ characters, why not read Alderman’s novel The Disobedience? And I think often of this line from the Quietus review of Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer: “There are times though where Monáe’s feminism feels disappointingly cis- and vagina-focused — I wish she’d taken the time to explore the politics of non-cis women and non-binary people a little more.” Because sure, we can barely move for odes to the vagina in pop music that come from a place of respect, wonder, equality and love. The way in which women are condemned for not representing — caring for — all aspects of experience makes me think about stereotypes that attach to motherhood: I’m sure I’ve said this elsewhere already, but mothers are expected to be all things, at once kind and firm and clever and meek and above all selfless, and I wonder if the same is true of art made by women. Like you, I’m suspicious of the demand that this art represent a multiplicity of experiences: and yet here I am doing it. Although in this case, I’m not putting the responsibility at the door of Claire Barron. I’m putting it at the door of Bijan Shebani — and you, at the door of Rupert Goold.

Dear Maddy,

If I were writing this as a one-sentence-I’m-running-out-the-door reply it would be something like: ‘YES! ALL OF THIS! omg I totally agree! xxx’ But because I’m not, for once, struggling to do up my boots while still typing, I’m going to try to expand on exactly what I agree with most.

I think you identify something so important when talking about the containment of it, the caged-in-ness of it, as a production. Which is perhaps why I felt I could have seen exactly the same play at, for example, the Yard or the Unicorn and it would have had a very different feel to it. I wonder now if the frustration I was trying to articulate was specifically linked to this, because I wanted it to be so much more disruptive, so much more earth-shattering/shaking.

Maybe that’s also why I kept thinking it didn’t have enough now-ness to it, and why perhaps I lent (correctly or incorrectly) on the idea of it as seeming slightly antiquated. I didn’t dislike it because I find the idea of smearing a streak of period blood on your face distasteful to my delicate middle-class sensibilities, I disliked it because I wanted MORE, MORE, MORE. I wanted the whole auditorium soaked in a rainfall of blood clots, if that’s what we were there for, and teenage girls transformed into werewolf moon-goddess beasts who genuinely scared the shit out of the adults in the room because it made them really think that a revolution is coming (to use the poster tagline I kept seeing on the tube escalator), but a revolution like they have never conceived of before. I would have liked it if the whole play had, after its relatively normal start, disintegrated completely into unhinged, rootless, surrealistic energy. This links to how I was annoyed by the amount of audience-facing monologues there were and how this added a certain clunkiness to it, all these horizontal and vertical lines segmenting the stage, and meant the audience were being told precisely how to interpret this work, rather than being allowed to meet it however they chose and leave, perhaps, in a mass of stomach-twisting confusion that would slowly unfurl in them over the coming weeks…

And I wanted this because I agree with you that misogyny is still so virulent and therefore we need things that are going to really get inside people to help attack it.

But, as you say, that is to commit the cardinal sin of describing what I wanted to see rather than taking the production on its own terms. It would be fair to ask why, if I care about this so much, don’t I stop bitching and write/direct the play I apparently ‘want’ to see. I guess that’s one of the essential problems with criticism in general, taking on the role of village moaner. The person pointing their finger and criticising everyone else. Especially because I appreciate the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation someone like Rupert Goold is in. Of the three plays I’ve seen at the Almeida this season, I fell in love with The Writer to the extent that I ran out of the theatre and into the rain and had this quasi-religious moment of elation over its brilliance (I wonder, periodically, if it is too soon to email Alice Saville at Exeunt and pre-claim writing about it as one of the best plays of 2018 despite the year being nowhere near over), and I thought Machinal absolutely justified itself as being in need of a revival, not least for the artistry contained in its structure — plus, I loved the big mouth of a set design. The new season, just announced, also looks great… I mean, I literally just clicked over to the press release to name check something and I can’t choose which. Maybe new Anne Washburn, maybe Vassa directed by Tinuke Craig, maybe just indulging my guilty, sticky love for collecting Chekhovs…

BUT ENOUGH. What I was actually going to ask was this: what do you want to see from ‘feminist theatre’ in the future? I put this type of question to myself quite often, partly as a test to counteract simply bitching. It’s always so easy to pick holes and criticise, but so much harder to describe what you would like. And because I imagine that you will have one of the most interesting, nuanced and poetically beautiful answers (no pressure, my friend…) that’s my final request: Maddy, tell me what you want.

Dear Rosemary

What a tantalising question. Let me give it some thought and come back to you…

**Encounters is a series by the Department of Feminist Conversations in conversation with the work that inspires, nourishes, challenges or provokes us. We welcome contributions from interested readers: your encounter can be with a novel, a poem, a political text, a film, a song, a photograph, a cartoon, an exhibition, a performance, a game — the list goes on and on. To register your interest, please email us at: departmentfc[at]gmail[dot]com