Theater review by Adam Feldman
Don’t be fooled by the exuberant opening number: Dance Nation is out for blood. Right after we watch eight competitive preteen dancers perform an Anything Goes–style tap routine in matching nautical outfits, one of the little sailors (Christina Rouner) is torpedoed by a compound fracture—and that’s just the first of many harsh surprises in Clare Barron’s riotous, rattling, sensational new play.
Dance Nation won the 2015 Relentless Award in a tie with Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, and the two works share a keen eye for the competition and camaraderie of adolescent girls. But the kids in Barron’s play are simultaneously younger (between 11 and 14) and older than the soccer players in DeLappe's: They are played by adults of different ages (including the Talking Band’s sixtysomething Ellen Maddow), and they sometimes break out of their time frame to share perspectives they will have years later. The effect of this doubleness is often hilarious—the actors’ dance skills vary—but also poignant. Even their glee has a shudder of mortality.
Under the exigent guidance of Dance Teacher Pat (a pricelessly serious Thomas Jay Ryan), the young dancers aspire to reach the nationals in Tampa Bay, a goal that is both trivial—an ugly trophy, a group picture on the wall—and the most important thing in the world. (The subject of their latest dance: Gandhi.) As rendered by Dance Nation's wondrous ensemble cast, under Lee Sunday Evans’s sharp direction, their fierce commitment is at once adorable and scary. They hone their discipline from within a mess of confusion, excitement, disappointment and anxiety.
The group’s lone boy, Luke (Ikechukwu Ufomadu), pines sweetly for the unsteady Zuzu (Eboni Booth), but Barron’s focus is on the fraught transition from girlhood to womanhood, which she depicts with unsparing variety and detail. A monologue by Ashlee (Lucy Taylor) escalates furiously from owning her sexuality to wielding it as an instrument of domination. Another scene is a triptych of girls at home: On the left, a humiliated Sofia (Camila Canó-Flaviá) washes menstrual blood from her tights; on the right, Connie (Purva Bedi) plays with toy horses; between them, Amina (Dina Shihabi)—the group’s star dancer, with ambition she is scared to acknowledge—tries in vain to pleasure herself with a pillow. While Dance Nation has a pussy-power message, it is anything but fearless. It embraces fear, hugs it tight, and channels it into a queasy kind of triumph.
Playwrights Horizons (Off Broadway). By Clare Barron. Directed by Lee Sunday Evans. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission.
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