Clare Barron (Photo: Zack DeZon)
By Lindsay B Davis
After seeing and reviewing Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, at Playwrights Horizons last month, my editor emailed me a directive: “You HAVE to see this play.” Admittedly, I am moved by all caps and anything with “dance” in the title. I am also partial to writers who explore the many moons of female adolescence in no holds barred fashion. Barron, a New Dramatists playwright and performer whose previous works You Got Older and I’ll Never Love Again have earned her numerous recognitions (among them an Obie Award for Playwriting, Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Play and NY Times Critics’ pick), is precisely that kind of dedicated, uninhibited storyteller.
Dance Nation explores the inner worlds and outer relationships of a small, Midwestern dance troupe comprised of loquacious teenagers (all girls and one boy) under the leadership of a mildly dictatorial, middle-aged, male dance teacher. When I saw it last month, I didn’t just feel things. I experienced the play as if I were in it, so absorbed by the textured action on stage as to feel at once entertained, empowered and mildly exposed when it was over. (All evidence of a successful theater outing!)
To say I identified and was moved by Barron’s striking piece would be an understatement, and based on critical and audience responses to this work (rave reviews, sold-out crowds and a recent second extension through July 1), I am not the only one.
It is with a sense of awe for the young artist’s accomplishments to date and gratitude for this particular work that I chatted with Clare Barron about her early experiences that lead to writing Dance Nation and probed a little deeper into her own process. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
What were your initial thoughts about and reactions to New York City when you arrived and began studying acting?
I remember waking up at 5:30 a.m. to go stand in line at the Equity building for auditions. After we put our names on the list, my buddies and I would go to the Crowne Plaza hotel in Times Square to change into our “audition clothes.” People told me to go to Sephora and use their make-up samples but I was always too terrified that I’d get caught. The rest of the day was spent waiting around the Equity building until about four o’clock when, if you were lucky, you’d be granted a two-minute audition.
One time I performed Imogen from Cymbeline for a production of Taming of the Shrew at Theater for a New Audience. I really thought this could be my big break! I remember after I finished the woman behind the desk told me, “That dress looks good on you.” And sent me on my way. I still have that dress. That’s what I think about when I think about my early days acting in New York.
You refer to Dance Nation as “a ghost play: the actors’ bodies are haunting these 13-year-olds characters (We’re getting to see who they grow up to be!). And these 13-year-old characters are haunted by the specters of what they will become…” Why did you choose to not cast young dancers in the roles, but rather to go with older adult actresses who move well but don’t necessarily come off as professional-level dancers?
I don’t remember exactly how I came to that decision only that it was always part of the play. I think in part I was tired of the casting convention of hiring petite twenty-five-year-olds to play thirteen, fifteen, etc. Thirteen-year-olds are very different than twenty-five-year-olds and I feel like by casting twenty-five-year-olds we actually aestheticize what it means to be that age when you’re still going through puberty and coming into your adult body. I was more interested in people of all ages who had the creature spirit of a thirteen-year-old than people in their twenties. And I was interested in how those people and their bodies moved regardless of any virtuosic talent.
In one scene, the dancers declare, “I WANT TO DANCE. I WANT TO DANCE. I WANT TO HEAL THE WORLD THROUGH DANCE.” Do you feel the same way about writing?
I think every artist hopes in some way that their art will have the power to heal or make the world a better place. Otherwise, we’d do something else. But I certainly doubt its capacity to do that all the time.
When the girls hear about the legend of Sabina (who was discovered by Telsey & Co., then became a star on Broadway) Dance Teacher Pat says, “Maybe this is the year, this is the moment, this is the dance where your lives will start!” The girls reply in unison, “I want my life to start! Oh pleazz!” I love this moment. I’m forty and sometimes I feel like I’m still waiting! Do you think to a certain degree, success has become a determining social/cultural factor for when life really begins?
I think this is such a good question. And I think, yes. When I was a kid and I felt that way, I think I was secretly thinking like, “When am I going to be a movie star, already? When am I going to fall in love?” This secret desire for something epic to happen to you. Then you start doing adventurous things. You move away from a small town. You come to New York. Everything is incremental, and everything is hard work. Success often doesn’t feel very good. And when you get something, you just want something else. There’s no arrival.
The trick is separating your self-worth from everything external—relationships, jobs, money… And finding something spiritual within yourself. Recently, when I’ve been coming home at night late from rehearsal, I’ve felt overwhelmed by gratitude that I have a house and a bed. I tell myself, “Enjoy this play. Because you may not have another one.”
Let’s talk about the scene at the barre when the girls try to get Amina to say the word “pussy.” I read that you wrote Dance Nation before the Access Hollywood tapes, before the 2016 election, before pink pussy hats became a thing. What was your reaction to “the p-word” becoming a dominant conversation point in our culture, and why is it so important for girls to reclaim language when it comes to their own body, as they do in your play?
I think the word pussy is still a word that means a lot of different things to different people and that’s okay. One woman came up to me after the show and said that she didn’t like the word because it reminded her of what men said to each other. A lot of people don’t like the “pussy” of the pink pussy hats—they feel it’s not inclusive feminism. For some people, the word reminds them of porn.
I like the word pussy because I just like the word pussy. I don’t entirely know why. I find it mysterious, I find it dirty, I find it sexy, I find it animal, I like saying it. It’s a word I didn’t say as a teenager. I had to grow up and discover my own sexuality before I could say it. It’s less anatomical to me—more about an opening. Just saying the word does something to my mouth that feels spiritual and profane all at once. I hope that no matter how you feel about the word “pussy” coming into the theater, the play takes you on a journey where the word evolves and becomes something spiritual, something cosmic, something empowering. And yes, I think that women (and everybody) should talk about their bodies with whatever language they want.
After Dance Teacher Pat swipes Amina’s butt, we’re not sure how she feels it, or how to take it. Why is it important to allow space for interpretation and ambiguity?
This is a moment that feels very different to different people. For some, it’s sexually abusive. For some, it’s inappropriate but doesn’t cross the line into abuse. For Amina, it’s also confusing. The stage direction literally reads, “Amina is horrified. And also, she loves it.” I think right now it’s very important that we’re taking a hard line against sexual assault and harassment. But I think it’s also important that in our art we explore how confusing and messy those experiences can be. There are definitely things that have happened to me that I enjoyed or excused at the time, and it was only later I realized how fucked up they were or what an abuse of power they were and adjusted my opinion. I’m trying to explore some of that here.
For a play about adolescent dancers, I am surprised at how little body shaming there is. Since girls are taught to criticize their bodies from such an early age (eating disorders pop up as early as eight or nine-years-old), it struck me how matter-of-fact they seem with themselves. Comfortable. They dance, sleep under moonlight, wear leotards or sparkly costumes, changing fully nude in front of each other with little to no self-consciousness, learn to masturbate… It’s one aspect of the world that feels almost utopian. Is that an observation you agree with for this world you’ve created?
I have a very narrow window into the dance world (I danced ballet from nine to fifteen), but yes, I saw polar extremes in term of body image. On the one hand, people were shamed for their bodies and their weight. Girls were weighed and made fun of. On the other, there was a total embrace of the body in all its nudity and sexuality, etc. I remember comparing pubic hair and nipple-size and hanging out together naked in a way that was very liberating and would never have happened with my friends at school.
One of the most memorable scenes for me was what you call “a triptych of girlhood.” Amina is masturbating. Connie is playing with her horse dolls. Sofia is in the bathroom, having just gotten her period, sobbing. Poignant and transcendent. Can you speak to the meaning of that scene for you and if you could write a “triptych of adulthood” for your life these days, what would it look like?
All of these moments—a girl getting her period, a girl playing with horses, a girl learning to masturbate—are deeply private windows into a young woman’s life. The scene purposefully straddles childhood to adolescence. You have the horses alongside the sexual fantasy alongside the terror of your body changing. It’s hard to write a triptych for adulthood! Because I don’t feel like I am on the cusp of that kind of change. But I would say: (A) reading ABC’s The Bachelor subreddit on the floor with my cats; (B) weeping over ABC’s The Bachelor subreddit on the floor with my cats; and (C) masturbating.
When I was in college, I learned that repression of the female voice was one of the biggest causes of my own disease and disorder. In other words, until I freed my authentic voice, I struggled with depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. At the end of the day, Dance Nation resonates so deeply with me because of the way it frees the collective young female voice. I feel like you took a proverbial chastity belt off and let these girls SPEAK OUT. The result (from an audience vantage point) is liberating. Exhilarating. Did you have the same feeling from writing it?
I’d say that for me writing is all about fighting repression and saying things out loud that you feel in private but are too ashamed to admit. So yes, in a way this play and all my plays are about letting something out. As a writer, the tricky part is knowing when that purge is life-affirming and when it’s destructive. What’s fun with Dance Nation is that they’re thirteen so any sort of self-expression feels really positive to me. I know that I’ve always struggled with doubting myself or feeling ashamed for taking up too much space. That’s partly why I write—it makes me feel confident and free. But I do think repression can make you sick, and I’m so sorry that it affected you that way.
Dance Nation plays through July 1 at Playwrights Horizons, Peter Jay Sharp Theatre.
Lindsay B Davis is an arts/culture journalist, actress, playwright and director. She resides in New York City.