REVIEW: “Dance Nation”

REVIEW: “Dance Nation”

By my count, at least three major plays this season have tackled the lives and minds of teenage girls—heretofore vastly overlooked dramatic terrain—in revelatory, incisive, and richly entertaining ways, heralding both a welcomed change in American Theatre and the continued arrival of a generation of female playwrights who are cracking ossified boundaries as they enthusiastically wrestle to own narratives and tell stories too-long ignored.

Uptown at Lincoln Center Theater, Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer Prize finalist “The Wolves” followed a pack of intelligent and athletic female soccer players at practice, sketching compelling portraits amid ferocious and fast dialogue.  Meanwhile, downtown at MCC Theater, Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play” (read my review)—thankfully receiving an encore run Off-Broadway this fall—offered a riotous, heartbreaking, and heartwarming comedy about a clique of Ghanaian private school girls angling to be Miss Ghana in the Miss Global Universe pageant. 

And then there’s “Dance Nation”, Clare Barron’s explosive and raw look at a ragtag troupe of 11-to-13 year-old competitive dancers striving to make it to the “Boogie Down Grand Prix” in Tampa Bay, Florida as they discover their bodies, their power, and their ambition amid the glorious horror of adolescence.  This hilarious and unsettling new play, which opened at Playwrights Horizons on May 8th, is refreshingly weird and thrillingly honest; I have never seen anything like it, and that is a purposeful and rewarding aim of Ms. Barron’s exquisite writing.

Set at an after-school dance studio in Liverpool, Ohio, the ruthlessly serious “Dance Teacher Pat” (Thomas Jay Ryan) is leading his troupe of six girls and one boy (there’s always one boy) to prepare their newest competitive piece, the “acro-lyrical” (whatever that means) “World On Fire: the Legacy of Gandhi”, which will take them to Philadelphia and Akron, and hopefully Tampa Bay, earning them a vaunted position in dance studio fame, so long as they don’t screw it up. 

Who will play the “spirit” of Gandhi?  Amina (Dina Shihabi) is the obvious star—the next Sabina?—but maybe it’s the less-talented but equally as passionate Zuzu (Eboni Booth)’s chance?  Then again, Connie (Purva Bedi) is the only South Asian dancer in the troupe.  Maeve (Ellen Maddow) isn’t really there for the competition, and Vanessa (Christina Rouner) is sidelined with an injury in the opening moments of the play.  Meanwhile, Ashlee (Lucy Taylor) is boldly realizing her sexual power and Luke (Ikechukwu Ufomadu) has a crush on Zuzu.

The stakes are high for these tweens.  “Eat. Sleep. Dance. Win.” is their collective mantra, as vignettes shine light on their lives, each adolescing at a different pace.  Topics like masturbation and menstruation are juxtaposed with innocent play with toy horses and some banter about boys.  Surreal exaggerations, like multiple sequences featuring choral chants, harmoniously balance realistic, intimate scenes that capture the logic and parlance of teenage conversation with effortless authenticity. 

This ordered chaos is expertly directed and choreographed by Lee Sunday Evans, who transposes the naturalistic force of Ms. Barron’s words to the stage amid flights of supernatural fancy, seamlessly managing tone throughout and crafting grounded and rounded characters.  These girls aren’t that good at dance, but that’s part of the point.  What tween dance troupe is?  They are awkward, incomplete, struggling people in the midst of some dark and challenging changes and discoveries.  Ms. Evans allows for all this, and more; no one is cute, all are ferocious in their own ways—collectively a tribe at turns terrifying, sad, powerful, and familiar.

In a masterstroke decision, the young dancers are played by adult actors of varying age, size, and ethnicity—so we simultaneously witness not only the youths they are but also the adults they become.  With this convention, Ms. Barron successfully and slyly telegraphs how we are shaped by childhood experiences, deep within us the children we once were echoing to the present, sometimes literally as characters intermittently face the audience as their adult selves in poignant soliloquies reflecting backward and reporting forward.  In this way, the play exists in a flash of ether, both past and present intermingling as memory, fiction, and fact—one of the truest expressions of the messiness of life I have seen on stage in recent memory.

A third jewel in this Triple Crown of new plays exploring young female power and identity in a society and a culture dominated by male representation, “Dance Nation” bursts with surprise and insight; for me, a thirty year-old man, the experience of seeing this play was like peering through an unvarnished looking glass into a world of which I previously bore only superficial understanding.  Free of the infantilizing or archetypically flat characterizations of teenage girls that we often get, Ms. Barron constructs fully realized people who are endlessly engrossing to observe.  Women will no doubt see elements of their own girlhood on stage, but I suspect men, too, will find much that is relatable.

While “Dance Nation” may not be everyone’s cup of tea—portions are quite explicit (“pussy” becomes a manic cri de coeur)—it undoubtedly represents a ravishing and exciting new terrain, the kind of theatre, when done right, that shatters complacency and broadcasts possibility.  As “Dance Nation” spreads across the nation, I think it will be hard to top this production, so catch it if you can.

Bottom Line: “Dance Nation” at Playwrights Horizons is Clare Barron’s explosive and raw look at a ragtag troupe of 11-to-13 year-old competitive dancers as they discover their bodies, their power, and their ambition amid the glorious horror of adolescence.  Both messy and explicit, this hilarious and unsettling new play is refreshingly weird and thrillingly honest, featuring an excellent ensemble cast and perfect direction.  Catch this one if you can.

Dance Nation
Peter Jay Sharp Theater
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036

Running Time: one hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: May 8, 2018
Final Performance: July 1, 2018

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tl;dr for May 14th