Review: ‘Dance Nation,’ the Power and the Terror of Girls at 13

Posted May 8, 2018 11:47 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Whether you admit it or not, your 13-year-old self is still living somewhere inside you like a feral demon-child whispering in the dark. It is a creature of frightening extremes, this being you once were: more hopeful and hopeless, joyous and despairing, loving and hateful than you have ever been since. Most likely, she or he is someone you try to avoid talking to.

So let us give thanks that the insanely talented playwright Clare Barron feels no such reticence. Her glorious new work, “Dance Nation,” which opened Tuesday evening at Playwrights Horizons, conjures the passionate ambivalence of early adolescence with such being-there sharpness and poignancy that you’re not sure whether to cringe, cry or roar with happiness.

Part of you will definitely feel like staring at your shoes throughout much of this group portrait of a competitive dance team made up of middle-school girls. But when a play is as blazingly original and unsettlingly familiar as this one, you’re obliged to keep your eyes on the stage and marvel at how close what you see cuts to the bone — your bone.

You may be questioning my use of the word “original.” Stories about earnest students giving their all for the team have long been the basis for popular shows about cheerleaders (“Bring It On”), balletomanes (“Center Stage”) and singers (“Glee”), not to mention the infinite variations in the realm of sports. But like “The Wolves,” Sarah DeLappe’s excellent debut play from 2016 about a girls’ soccer team, Barron is using an endlessly recycled formula to explore a time in life when minds and bodies are in a state of teeming flux. It’s an age when the body’s center of gravity seems suddenly to be located, thrillingly and alarmingly, directly between the legs.

“Pussy,” a word thrust abruptly into mainstream conversation during the 2016 presidential election, becomes the obsessive mantra for the girls in “Dance Nation.” It is spoken shyly, slyly, confrontationally and beatifically by a fearless cast, directed and choreographed with gloriously rough magic by Lee Sunday Evans.

By the production’s end you are almost guaranteed to agree with writer Lorrie Moore’s assertion: “I sometimes think of female adolescence as the most powerful life force that human nature has to offer.”

This is where I tell you that none of the “Dance Nation” actresses, who offer such vivid confirmation of Moore’s theory, are anywhere near the age of 13. They range from their 20s to their 60s, yet I never doubted that they were bona fide adolescents. Their performances have no hint of condescension or preciousness. But that’s not to say that their interpretations are entirely naturalistic.

With “I’ll Never Love Again,” Barron’s extraordinary choral piece two years ago, in which her own anguished teenage diaries were recited (and sung) by a large and eclectic cast, she redefined the memory play. It was a work that expanded first-person experience into an all-reflecting hall of mirrors.

In “Dance Nation” she creates a gallery of specifically detailed individuals who, however much they might long for it, can never meld completely with someone else, even their very best friends. But the fact that the actresses playing these girls are adults implicitly makes this latest work, too, a memory play — and a reminder of how impossible it is to escape the way we were.

The Liverpool, Ohio, team training for the nationals here is led by Dance Teacher Pat (a pricelessly serious Thomas Jay Ryan) and comprises six girls (played by Purva Bedi, Eboni Booth, Camila Canó-Flaviá, Ellen Maddow, Dina Shihabi and Lucy Taylor) and one boy (Ikechukwu Ufomadu). The star of the group is undeniably the innately graceful and laser-focused Amina (a perfectly cast Shihabi).

But for their new competition entry, which is about the life and legacy of Gandhi, it is Amina’s best friend, Zuzu (a direct and intelligent Booth), who is chosen to be the lead dancer. Zuzu is as dance-mad as Amina is — but not nearly as talented, which she well knows. This imbalance in casting creates an uneasiness that spreads through the team like a virus.

That doesn’t sound so different from the plot of a multiplex rooting flick, does it? The girls of “Dance Nation” have internalized the clichés of such shows’ mythology, as has Dance Teacher Pat. (There is a witty, fleeting nod to “A Chorus Line” in the audition sequence.)

The difference is that, this being a work of theater, Barron and Evans have full license to distort surface reality to show what’s happening within. Arnulfo Maldonado’s dance-studio set has room for the emergence of a surreal, fairy-tale moon and a curtain-windowed corridor, from which emerges the sound of fractious adults. (Christina Rouner plays a witty succession of moms.)

When a semi-celebrity graduate of their program is mentioned, the girls hiss her name in sibilant wonder and envy. When they huddle and chant their team’s slogans, they sound as primal as starving cougars that have spotted new prey. While rehearsing the Gandhi number, they turn into full-fanged, erotically overcharged vampires.

Every so often, soliloquies happen: out-of-time monologues in which the girls give voice to concealed narcissism and abysmal doubts. Taylor’s paean to her character’s brilliance and beauty has a solar force that blinds, while Eboni’s assessment of what makes a star — and why Zuzu doesn’t have it — is heartbreaking in its pragmatism.

Whether in the dressing room or backstage, the conversation is authentically piquant in its shifts between confidence and uncertainty as discussions pivot among topics including masturbation, life ambitions and how to lose one’s virginity. Despite the appealing, low-key presence of Ufomadu, boys are rarely the subject. These girls are focused with full-beam intensity on one another and the feelings of profound attachment and loneliness that emerge from being part of a team.

Sometimes, a character will turn into the woman she will become, recalling what happened years before with a heightened clarity that real memory never allows. Maddow, a sexagenarian actress associated with the experimental troupe Talking Band, has one such moment that I can’t get out of my head.

I don’t want to ruin it for you. But it involves a sense of transcendence — of possessing uncanny and unexpected talents — that is unique to teetering on the dangerous edge of adulthood. Such feelings are hard to retrieve years later. That is, unless you have the blessed, empathic omniscience of a godly, forgiving artist like Barron.

Production Notes:

“Dance Nation”

Through June 3 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Manhattan; 212-279-4200, playwrightshorizons.org. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

By Clare Barron; directed and choreographed by Lee Sunday Evans; sets by Arnulfo Maldonado; costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter; lighting by Barbara Samuels; sound by Brandon Wolcott; production stage manager, Erin Gioia Albrecht; associate artistic director, Adam Greenfield. Presented by Playwrights Horizons, Tim Sanford, artistic director, Leslie Marcus, managing director, and Carol Fishman, general manager.

Cast: Purva Bedi (Connie), Eboni Booth (Zuzu), Camila Canó-Flaviá (Sofia), Ellen Maddow (Maeve), Christina Rouner (Vanessa/The Moms), Thomas Jay Ryan (Dance Teacher Pat), Dina Shihabi (Amina), Lucy Taylor (Ashlee) and Ikechukwu Ufomadu (Luke).