Dance Nation is a surprise, and a shock, and a delight. Although the characters are a team of 13-year-old competitive dancers from Liverpool, Ohio aiming to win the Boogie Down Grand Prix in Tampa Bay, Clare Barron’s play is not really about dancing. It is a funny, sharp and very blunt look at adolescent girls – portrayed by a terrific cast made up of actors as old as 60.
Although there are a couple of dance numbers, director and choreographer Lee Sunday Evans is not aspiring to be a next-generation Michael Bennett. Dance Nation is less reminiscent of Bennett’s musical A Chorus Line than of Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, a play about a soccer team of teenage girls, and Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, a play about an adult acting class. As in those plays, the actual activity is only the frame for sometimes random-seeming scenes whose purpose is to get to know the characters. Dance Nation is at its most entertaining and revealing in between the actual dancing.
“If I could dance away world hunger, and all violence against women, and all pets without a home, and all the sadness and meanness” the six girls (and one boy) chant in unison, “that’s what I would do.” It’s one of the many odd and often fierce (and funny) rituals in which we see the team engage as preparation for their dance competitions, encouraged by their self-serious leader, Dance Teacher Pat, a hilarious Thomas Jay Ryan. There is satire aplenty in Dance Teacher Pat’s pep talks to his dancers and even in his choice of dances. He has decided on one called “World on Fire,” about Gandhi (whom the girls had never heard of), and, in preparation for their debut performance of it at a competition in Philadelphia, he goes on at length about poverty and death and disease in the world. “I want you to think about all the people in the world who are suffering..And I want you to go out there. And I want you to dance for them.”
But, for all the satirical touches, there are spot-on explorations of the sensitivities and insecurities but also boastfulness and bold curiosities of children who are developing into adults. There are priceless exchanges, for example, between Amina (Dina Shihabi) and Zuzu (Eboni Booth), the best and second-best dancers in the company, that are a mix of supportive, envious, resentful and guilty. At one point Zuzu tells Amina she needs to “take a break from watching you, and from talking to you…it’s not because I don’t love you.” There are also some unusually explicit scenes that present adolescence at its most awkward, adventurous and messy. In the dressing room, the girls get naked while casually discussing first wolves, then masturbation, and then who will get the lead in the new dance. There are a couple of graphic scenes involving menstruation.
Unlike Dear Evan Hansen, Dance Nation is not really aiming for an audience of 13-year-olds, but rather for those of us who remember what it was like to be 13. That is part of the reasoning for the casting of actors who do not look like teenagers. There are also several monologues near the end in which the characters have jumped into the future and are looking back. And yes, the play — which won the 2017 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, an annual award given since 1978 to recognize an outstanding new play by a woman playwright — focuses on the experience of the female characters. But Ikechukwu Ufomadu is wonderfully understated as the only boy in the group, the shy, curious Luke. And, near the very end, when the entire cast male and female recites with increasing volume and force a chant that includes a repetition of the phrase “my perfect, perfect pussy,” it is funny, and a little shocking, and a bit weird, but also, somehow, very stirring – like Dance Nation itself
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged
Dance Nation is on stage at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42 Street, west of Ninth Avenue,New York, NY 10036) through June 3, 2018