A play that begins with a big tap number facing away from the audience, performed (as is immediately apparent) by actors who are not trained dancers, tips you off immediately that it’s interested in interrogating its representations of the body (especially the female body) and its actors’ physicality. It quickly becomes clear that in addition to non-dancers playing a troupe of competition dancers, the group comprises actors of all ages (six women, one man) playing twelve-to-fourteen-year-olds. Clare Barron’s Dance Nation acknowledges in the opening to the script that the play intends to occupy the space between these preadolescent characters and “the specters of what they will become;” to capture the fierce ambition and competitiveness and energy of girls–and girls whose project in the play is dancing to be looked at and be judged–as they shoot forward into women, and also to look back on girlhood from the vantage point of adulthood. Barron writes, “The actors’ older bodies are haunting these thirteen-year-old characters…and at times we should be palpably aware of the actors’ real ages and their distance from this moment in their lives.”
While that gap and all the uncertainties and fears that live in it are palpable, Dance Nation too often feels stranded between the two; I didn’t feel like the actors or the characters were successfully grounded in either age, or convincingly portraying the passion and the commitment to dance that their characters fiercely feel. (In one of the most effective dance scenes, we see only their facial expressions as they perform an audition; their bodies are still–and more powerful for it. The only other dance moment that I found effective was when perpetual runner-up Zuzu (Eboni Booth) dances her long-awaited solo; the joy on Booth’s face, and the relief of letting herself believe, for a moment, that she actually is the best, are wonderful.) It’s not really about dance as much as it is about competition and recognition of the unfairness of both adolescence and any competitive endeavor–but it is very much about bodies and women’s relationships to their own, and I didn’t feel like either Barron or director Lee Sunday Evans successfully found vocabularies of either language or movement, for most of the cast, that display the ideas the play grapples with. While most of the characters have outside-of-time-and-place monologues–some in the present, some leaping into the future–that explore their psyches and the wishes of their hearts, it was sometimes hard to see those inner selves as belonging to the outer selves we see for most of the play.The throughlines from their present to their future selves seem attenuated; I don’t see each girl in her woman’s body. I think one of Barron’s points is that most people, perhaps especially teenage girls–or in the case of the one male dancer, Luke (Ikechukwu Ufomadu), shy teenage boys–overflow with the things they can’t confess while trying to conform in public, but there’s a little too much randomization of the interior lives here; I didn’t always believe that these were the deep soul-cries of these characters. Which may be truer than a more holistic concept of character, but also less satisfying.
The little moments where Dance Nation captures adolescence beautifully are strong and achingly poignant: Sofia (Camila Canó-Flaviá), the one who quietly and confidently knows everything, getting her period for the first time onstage and trying to make peace with her new body as she washes blood from her tights after the show. Amina (Dina Shihabi), the preternaturally talented dancer who doesn’t know how to own that power, trying to teach, and then will herself to masturbate. Connie (Purva Bedi), who feels like she’s always the tiniest bit an outsider, coming home from the competition and playing with her toy horses. One of the play’s most striking, empowering monologues, Ashlee’s (Lucy Taylor) assertion of her significance and power that gradually swells to a fantasy of world domination, sings with joy and power and Taylor’s wry glee at her gathering strength and freedom. At the same time, that monologue is a good example of the play’s refusal to make choices about style–the language is heightened, but in a way that doesn’t necessarily feel connected to the Ashlee we see at either age.
I was often reminded of Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, with which Dance Nation shares two huge commonalities: the focus on an ensemble of young women characters to excavate a segment of society that rarely appears onstage with agency and centrality and the use of an intense, shared physical activity to allow a non-prurient deep dive into woman’s bodies and their relationships with them. But where DeLappe created an insular girl-world, with only one adult character appearing at the very end, Barron includes the dance team’s coach, Dance Teacher Pat (Thomas Jay Ryan), played as someone with both enormous power over the team and transparent favoritism, and also a series of the dancers’ mothers (all played by Christina Rouner), which makes the dancers’ relationships with one another constantly sidelined by the power adults have over them. Also, The Wolves’ soccer players—not elite athletes, just as the actors here are not trained dancers—had a more unified and stylized approach to the moments of sport shown onstage, which allowed the braid of their relationships with each other and with their game to grow more organically. In trying to do something more ambitious with the relationship between her characters and the actors who play them, Barron and Evans lost touch, a bit, with their physical presences onstage.
Dance Nation wants to be about the liminal moment between childhood and adolescence, where your baby dreams and your adult fears and your secrets all combine into a blaze of energy and power that may flare and burn out before you make it to adulthood. I appreciate the fierceness of the girls, and Barron’s refusal to “cast 23 playing 13,” and that there’s not a sentimental moment in it; even the ritual-esque chants of female empowerment are also slyly funny. But the play doesn’t succeed in either striking an emotionally realistic tone or using its stylization to generate insight, and the characters didn’t feel whole to me. And for a play about power and competition, it often feels physically timid; I wish Barron and Evans had found a more compelling way to stage the compelling questions Dance Nation raises about agency, female embodiment, and growing up.
Dance Nation runs to June 3, 2018. More production info can be found here.