‘Dance Nation’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Thank you, Clare Barron, for writing a non-apologetic, visceral play about girls growing into women. Dance Nation, currently playing at Playwright Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater is a 105-minute explosion of theatricality, draws from a multitude of performing styles with a primal underbelly thanks to director/choreographer Lee Sunday Evans.
Set in Liverpool, Ohio (and other various competition locales), Dance Nation follows a team of pre-teen competitive dancers who hope to make it to the national finals in Tampa Bay and bring home the trophy. They’re led by the hard-driving Dance Teacher Pat (Thomas Jay Ryan) whose big-fish-in-small-pond syndrome drive the girls nearly insane with competitive vigor. The seven-member team consists of a range of anti-archetypes, who continually surprise as dreams are achieved or broken as the events unfold.
Pat’s grand season finale, an acro-lyrical routine titled “World on Fire,” explores the legacy of Gandhi and two girls clamor for the principal role. Amina (Dina Shihabi) is the likely choice, given she’s the star dancer, but Zuzu (Eboni Booth) wants it bad. Connie (Purva Bedi) snags the title role, but in a surprise twist, Dance Teacher Pat casts Zuzu as “The Spirit of Gandhi,” giving her the opportunity to shine on the national dance circuit, too.
The scenario provides form and function for Dance Nation’s but it is Barron’s supercharged script, wildly veering on adolescent emotional tangents, that catapults the play into a realm of exceptional theatricality. The girls—along with Luke (Ikechukwu Ufomad), the one boy on the team—are unapologetically primal, letting out a guttural scream when Pat announces the cast.
Zuzu is full of self-doubt, though, and her mom (Christina Rouner, who plays multiple moms throughout the piece) confronts Pat, demanding he encourage her daughter:
There’s no such thing as talent
People plant it in their minds
Whether they’re good at this
Or bad at that…
I want you to whisper in her ear that she’s amazing and that she takes your breath away every. single. time. she dances. That’s! What I want you to do
This juxtaposition of who we are and who we become through influences of family and society is at the core of Barron’s play. Ashlee (Lucy Taylor), perhaps the most confident of the bunch, rambles in a brilliant monologue spoken directly to the audience about her intellectual capacity and being called “beautiful”—a diatribe that skewers centuries of inequality and patriarchal bullshit. In another scene, Barron captures fleeting adolescence with a simultaneous intimate portrayal of three girls at night-time, each experiencing her own evolution: one cleaning up after having her period, another masturbating, and the third playing with childhood toys.
In the play’s final scenes, we get a sense of where these girls are headed, with forecasting monologues that reveal the trials and tribulations of life with XX chromosomes. They conquer the world, but some without paying the price.
Evans smartly doesn’t attempt to tame Barron’s script. Instead, she embraces it full-throttle, as does the rest of the creative team, with a particular mention for Arnulfo Maldonado’s visually impactful scenic design and Brandon Wolcott’s pulsating soundscape.
Dance Nation reminds us of how fragile childhood can be. And also how empowering when we nurture the power within.
Peter Jay Sharp Theater
416 West 42nd Street
Through June 3
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @wexlerwrites.