Written by Clare Barron
Directed and Choreographed by Lee Sunday Evans
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Clare Barron’s “Dance Nation” Explores the Angst of Adolescence with Cathartic Wit.
Separation-individuation is one of life’s most difficult passages: it is completed successfully by most; however, more than might be suspected remain in the mire of adolescence all their lives. Prepubescence is supposed to erupt in adulthood – adults emerging where clingy parent-dependent pre-teens once held sway. It is a passage equally traumatic to boys as it is to girls, but in “Dance Nation” currently running at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater, playwright Clare Barron chooses to focus on this process from the point of view of “pre-pubescent” girls. The trope chosen to immerse the audience in this time of trauma is the extended metaphor of the dance studio.
“The dance,” although appearing a cooperative endeavor in performance on stage, is as competitive a sport as one might imagine. Thirteen-year-old girls have enough difficulty maneuvering the path to self-understanding in a male-dominated environment without pitting themselves against one another as they learn the various ballet positions and attempt to absorb the “positions” of adulthood. The girls explore their fantasies, their fears, their longings, their sexual development, their private thoughts as they work at the barre, or on the floor, or in private conversations with one another or their Moms (Christina Rouner). They tolerate Dance Teacher Pat’s (Thomas Jay Ryan) self-absorbed “instruction” (a trope for the male-centered society?) and counterpoint the adolescent woes of Luke (Ikechukwu Ufomadu) – the only boy in the class – with their own.
Under Lee Sunday Evans’ crisp direction, with her alluring choreography, and with the care of the all-female production team, Purva Bedi (Connie), Eboni Booth (Zuzu), Camila Canó-Flaviá (Sofia), Ellen Maddow (Maeve), Christina Rouner Vanessa), Dina Shihabi (Amina), and Lucy Taylor (Ashlee), and Ikechukwu Ufomadu (Luke) deliver authentic performances and give their disparate characters a genuine grounding in the conflicts they are experiencing as adolescents and might experience as adults in engaging scenes of foreshadowing and foretelling. Their journeys are a microcosm of dance epitomize the macrocosm of gender parity and self-acceptance.
In an explosive unison Greek-Chorus, the girls share their wish that society would urge the importance of their personal individuality as much as their sexually stereotyped identities. It is best for the intensity and the diction of this chorus to be experienced firsthand by the audience. Some might find the tone exhilarating while some might find the rant a tad impolite. Either way, the performance is powerful and authentic and represents the beginning of the evolution into adulthood. These thirteen-year-olds yearn for more than perfect genitalia: they yearn for “greatness” and “perfection” in “face,” “body,” and “soul.”
Dance Teacher Pat and Luke join the chorus exemplifying that perhaps the process is not complete until boys and men can join the chorus of equality. The recent announcement by Benedict Cumberbatch that he will not accept a role unless his female co-stars are paid the same salary is one example of gender awareness. Keenly aware of their psychosexual development into adulthood, the teenagers are also hoping to be more than their sexuality: they yearn for gender equality in education, employment, and community.
After the opening dance number – one that none too subtly discloses the variety of levels of “development” in the young dancers – Vanessa turns the “wrong way” and suffers what appears to be a compound fracture. The stage manager asks her to get off the stage, ignoring her dilemma and her pain. Her opportunity for winning ends in debilitating injury. At the end of “Dance Nation,” Amina rehearses the dynamics of her winning this way: “I rode the wave/Like I always knew how to ride the wave/And others kept falling along the way/But I kept riding/Til I was alone.” There can be no more existential angst than this remembrance of things to come.