It is not easy to describe Dance Nation, a new play by Clare Barron that is presented by Playwrights Horizons in its 96-seat upstairs space. But then, one should not ever expect to witness “easy” stuff at Playwrights Horizons, which justifiably takes pride in introducing challenging works by upcoming writers.
Essentially, Dance Nation studies some 13-year-old girls who comprise a dance group that is contending in the regional bouts of a national competition. Involving six girls, their male teacher, a boy dancer, and several moms, the story moves in a linear direction: The girls (and the boy) rehearse a new dance—an “acro-lyrical” tribute to Gandhi—compete for the leading roles, and then perform it for better or worse results for some of the youngsters. The experience provokes from among them various personal insights.
Barron’s actual composition of her seriocomic piece is scarcely so straightforward. Some of this play’s numerous scenes are relatively realistic. Others develop unexpectedly into rituals. Some of the dance sequences are stylized while others are prosaic, and there’s a bizarre choreographed interlude shaded in hellish lighting where all of the girls are fiercely baring fangs. Monologues and digressions abound. The talk can be childish or smutty or surprisingly mature. The emotional tone of the 105-minute play shifts as frequently as the skittish writing style.
Through its contradictions and inconsistencies as a dramatic unity, as well as in the wide, wild array of thoughts that are expressed by its characters, Dance Nation apparently is meant to reflect the disorderly moment-by-moment mindsets of young teenagers.
One recognizes from the opening scene, as the troupe clatters through a nautical tap number, that Dance Nation will not be a traditional show. The playwright and Lee Sunday Evans, the director and choreographer, have cast these 13-year-olds with women ranging in age from their 20s into their 60s. In addition to the practical wisdom of employing mature professionals who can skillfully depict youngsters better than actual kids, the choice visually underlines how these characters eventually will become grown-ups who will harbor memories of their formative years.
As the story progresses, Barron details various friendships among the girls; especially the one between Amina (Dina Shihabi), the most gifted dancer, and Zuzu (Eboni Booth), who proves more wishful than dedicated. Other troupers engage in earnest locker room discussions about masturbation, virginity and its future loss, seeing somebody’s penis, and similar issues of sexual awakening. Connie (Purva Beddi) still plays with toy horses. Maeve (Ellen Maddow) harbors magical dreams about flying. Sofia (Camila Cano-Flavia), seemingly a know-it-all, is appalled when she experiences her first menstrual period. The low-keyed Luke (Ikechukwu Ufomadu), hopelessly crushed on Zuzu, is more or less ignored by the others.
Perhaps the blazing highlight of this quirky, frequently compelling play is an extraordinary monologue by Ashlee (a riveting Lucy Taylor) extolling her good looks and smarts and how she modestly downplays her assets to others. “I never say this stuff to anybody because I am afraid they’re going to hate me,” she notes, before launching into a stunning, foul-mouthed peroration regarding the awesome power burning within her tiny body that someday will see her totally rule everybody’s world.
It’s a wow sequence in a play about incipient womanhood that concludes ferociously with a ranting chant by the entire company that should gratify Eve Ensler as much as it would terrify Donald Trump.
Facilitated by generally understated designs from Arnulfo Maldonado (scenic), Asta Bennie Hostetter (costume), Barbara Samuels (lighting) and Brandon Wolcott (sound), Evans’ staging unobtrusively and smoothly melds the play’s innumerable shifts in tone. The ensemble, which also includes Thomas Jay Ryan as the rather triste teacher and Christina Rouner as various mothers, easily performs the sudden emotional leaps and fouettes that the playwright demands from them.
Between its sophisticated approach to dramatizing adolescent concerns and its somewhat raw language, Dance Nation probably (and ironically) is not a show to which many moms will take their daughters. But I’ll bet that plenty of women will recognize their younger selves and their anxieties from those youthful times whirling around within Barron’s unusually intense sweet and sour drama.