“It’s all or nothing, for all the girls”

Suzanne Frost

Just shortly after opening in New York to rave reviews, “Dance Nation” by American playwright Clare Barron will have its UK premiere at the Almeida Theatre. The explosive play is an award-winning riff on the cut-throat world of pre-teen competitive dancing, following a troupe of fiercely ambitious girls in a ferocious exploration of youth, ambition and self-discovery. The young girls in the competition will be played by a cast of different races and ages. Karla Crome who plays star dancer Amina, talked to us about getting back into a teenage mind-set, bonding through dance rehearsals and the power of dreams getting you through testing times.

London Calling: What were you like as a teenager? Is it a time you remember fondly or rather not?
Karla Crome: It’s definitely a period of my life that I wouldn’t want to return to. I think I was probably wrapped up in all the usual teenage angst, much of which is explored in the play, about my sense of self, who I was in the world, my sexuality and my relationships with my family and my friends. I think it’s quite easy to look back on it and patronise that period of your life or laugh at it, but actually it’s hormonally, emotionally and intellectually a very testing time.
Dance Nation rehearsals. Karla Crome and Brendan Cowell. Credit: Marc Brenner 
LC: What is it like now as an adult going back into that teenage mind-set for your character?
KC: It is quite interesting. In the rehearsal room we have to return to these ideas and emotions that we are experiencing for the first time in the play, complicated relationship experiences that we probably have frequently in adulthood and know how to negotiate and deal with, but when you are 11, they are often quite difficult to work our way through. That’s what’s challenging about the play, you don’t always respond emotionally as you would as an adult, everything is fresh and undiscovered territory.
LC: Can you describe your character Amina a little bit?
KC: Amina is the star dancer on the dance team in the play. She is very talented but she doesn’t want to overshadow her friends and make them feel worthless by achieving her best. She’s got a huge amount of potential to go very far, but she is also trying to be a popular member of the group and not do the thing that every teenage girl doesn’t want to do, which is to stand out from the crowd. So she is trying to hide her talent for a lot of the play.
LC: How is the dancing for you?
KC: We have 3 or 4 choreographed routines in the play, three of them full, all out dancing and we drill them every day.
Dance Nation rehearsals. Credit: Marc Brenner 

LC: Does that create a team spirit as a group?
KC: Absolutely! We are all from very varied backgrounds in terms of experience with dancing. Sarah Hadland who plays Sofia used to dance on the West End stage 20 years ago so she’s got a huge amount of dance experience, whereas other people have never even attempted it before, yet in the world of the play we are all meant to be at this high competitive level. It takes a huge amount of work and dedication, but it does bring us together and support each other and it’s the best way to get a group of strangers to really bond and connect.
LC: I feel like we are very used to seeing groups of boys, as in sports teams, in movies and stories – but girls are never really shown having ambitions beyond getting the boy?
KC: I certainly can’t think of it in this context, especially with adults playing people who are younger. Naturally, there’s going to be comical elements to it because of the very nature of what we are doing but I think what underpins it is a very serious investigation into sisterhood and friendship and puberty, which is unique to the female perspective.
LC: Clare Barron, the playwright, said she specifically chose 13 as an age of sexual awakening before any kind of partner comes into the picture, so it is very pure and personal and true.
KC: I don’t think it’s very comfortable for us as adults to admit that between the age of 11 and 13, girls do have these intense sexual and emotional experiences. But I do feel this play is a celebration of that and we try to not shy away from how difficult it is to imagine that as adults.

Dance Nation rehearsals. Manjinder Virk, Irfan Shamji, Karla Crome and Kayla Meikle. Credit: Marc Brenner
LC: You are a playwright as well. What are the ups and downs of writing compared to acting?
KC: I think in many ways they are quite similar. In both the aim is to create something that is very truthful. As an actor you want to create a character that goes through a journey from beginning to end that people can relate to, and when you create the written character you want to create someone who is believable, who the audience can identify with, who is grounded in truth and reality. So in both cases that’s the ultimate aim. On a more practical level, with acting you have less control over your schedule, you can’t sit around and wait for inspiration to come to you, you have to do it in the moment, it’s a very active vocation, whereas writing, if I’m not working to a deadline, I have more time to think things over and discover them naturally and organically.
LC: Acting is probably similar to dancing in the way that you have to sacrifice a lot and work quite hard at a young age.
KC: That’s definitely something that is really discussed in the play. I think it’s really specific and key to being a teenager as well – it’s so all or nothing. You have to give everything to this and it has to cost you something or it won’t come true. You have to make sacrifices in order to make it happen, I think there’s a lot of that embedded in this play. I I’ve always wanted to be an actor since I was tiny, about 4 or 5, it was a really raw strong ambition I had with a lot of my hopes and dreams wrapped up in that. Interestingly - we talked about being a teenager earlier - I think a lot of my aspirations to be an actor got me through that period. It is messy and unsettling and sad and confusing, but if you’re fortunate enough to have a dream that pulls you through, it makes the whole experience more bearable.
Dance Nation will be at the Almeida Theatre 27 August –1 September.

Your inbox deserves a little culture! Get our monthly newsletter