Theater Review: The Wild Ambition of Dance Nation

From Dance Nation, at NYTW. Photo: Joan Marcus

Things that happened when I was 13: I played first-chair clarinet in my middle-school band. I tried to kiss my first boy (he was second-chair) while we took a walk in the woods. He didn’t open his mouth. He would come out two years later and go on to model for Abercrombie & Fitch. Whenever I see him on Instagram I’m completely thrown off by that familiar head sitting on top of that ridiculously shredded body. What else? I bused over to the high school to play for the junior-varsity soccer team while I was still a middle-schooler. It was a big deal. I was really good. I thought I might go to college on a soccer scholarship. By tenth grade I’d stopped playing, overwhelmed by a coach who motivated us by shouting. Not good enough. Too slow. Get your head in the game. Would you like to join the rest of us on the field?

If you were ever a 13-year-old girl, Clare Barron’s daring, raw Dance Nation will probably hit you hard. If you weren’t, the play might feel like strange, even somewhat disturbing terrain, but I’d urge you to venture in all the same. Now at Playwrights Horizons, under the spiky yet sensitive direction of Lee Sunday Evans, Dance Nation’s got me turning my own preteen years over in my head, picking gingerly through my baggage to look at the stuff I’ve carried ever since, especially my own troubled relationship with confidence and ambition. It’s a brave, visceral, excitingly off-kilter barbaric yawp of a play. It’s angry and it’s sad. It’s brash and it’s funny. And it gets at something excruciatingly tender: the burden of modesty on young American women. It feels like a playwright declaring her manifesto: No more apologizing. No more downplaying my own talent. No more choosing nice over brilliant, nice over best. No more insidious, self-sacrificing, meek, accommodating, damaging fear.

Of course, easier said than danced, as the 13-year-olds of Barron’s play are learning day by day, and as those of us several times their age … are still learning too. Coming into one’s own sounds great, but god, the growing pains. Dance Nation is going to be an interesting play for theaters to package: It’s much weirder and darker than its subject matter — the story of a preteen competitive dance squad gunning for national championships — might lead you to presume. And that’s part of Barron’s point: Being a teenager is weird and dark. Trying to figure out who you are and what you want and the difference between what you love and what you’re good at, not to mention what’s going on between your legs — which, if you’re a girl, is sometimes exciting and sometimes gory and completely terrifying — isn’t a matter of some feel-good buzzwords like “empowerment” or “self-discovery” (though those will probably show up in Dance Nation’s marketing copy at some point in its future). It’s a bloody battle. And we carry its scars, both proud and ashamed of them, for the rest of our lives.

“Cuteness is death,” Barron writes on the opening page of her script, in one of my favorite stage directions I’ve read in a while: “Pagan feral-ness and ferocity are key.” Parents who bring their 13-year-olds to Dance Nation (and I hope they do) might be startled if they’re expecting Bring It On. What they’ll get instead are period blood and broken bones, depression and disillusionment, hissing and roaring and bared teeth, and a monologue where one girl, wondering what would happen if she simply stopped denying her power — stopped reflexively saying No when people called her funny, beautiful, smart —unleashes a vision of a world where she’s “gonna get a perfect score on the SAT … [and] I’m going to be a FUCKING SURGEON … I’m going to be a FUCKING GENIUS POET… I’m going to be even more ridiculously attractive than I am now and GREAT AT SEX … and I’m going to make you my bitch, you motherfucking cunt-munching piece of shit prick. I am your god. I am your second coming. I am your mother and I’m smarter than you and more attractive than you and better than you at everything that you love and you’re going to get down on your knees and worship my mind, my mind and my body, and I’m gonna be the motherfucking KING of your motherfucking WORLD.”

Shocked? Put off? Feeling like that’s all a little intense? (You haven’t even heard the cunnilingus part of the speech yet.) If so, Barron, Evans, and Dance Nation’s tenacious ensemble are daring you to ask yourself why. “I don’t think that any of my plays are crude,” Barron told the Interval in a 2016 interview, “But I think people find them sometimes to be crude and I think that’s because of what we feel like we’re comfortable looking at … I feel like we still live in a world where we want women’s bodies to be invisible … I’m really interested in making work about the female body and I’m continually astounded by how uncomfortable that makes people.” We live in a world with a long tradition of imagining the female body as monstrous — from the vagina dentata myth to that worn-out joke about not trusting anything that bleeds for a week and doesn’t die. One of the powerful twists of Dance Nation is its repossession of the idea of the monster. The girls in Barron’s play are all baby beasts, reckoning with their own ferocity, their own weirdness and wildness. In one sensational moment, Zuzu, the group’s perennially second-best dancer, opens her mouth to reveal shiny, pointy vampire teeth. Howling, she bites into her own arm and savors the taste, then leads the rest of the girls in a bacchanalian revel to FAY’s breathy, bumpin’ “Talk With My Body.” (The badass sound design is by Brandon Wolcott, and Evans choreographed the girls’ numbers, which are both fervent and wonderfully un-virtuosic.)

As the driven, sweet-natured, struggling Zuzu, Eboni Booth shoulders a good deal of the play’s emotional arc. In an attempt to reach a tournament called the Boogie Down Grand Prix in Tampa, the girls’ dance teacher — he’s always referred to by his full title, “Dance Teacher Pat,” and is played with hilarious seriousness by Thomas Jay Ryan — has concocted a special performance, a dance that tells the story of Gandhi. His explanation of his own brilliance to the girls (“It’s going to be a really beautiful number about resistance”) feels like something out of a Christopher Guest mockumentary: ridiculous and absolutely believable. Of course the big question is, Who will dance the role of Gandhi? Will it be Connie (the moving Purva Bedi), the only Indian-American girl on the team? Will it be Amina (Dina Shihabi, in a performance that stings the heart), the unquestioned best dancer and, according to the other girls, Dance Teacher Pat’s favorite? Might it be Zuzu, who knows that she’s good but not as good — never as good — as Amina? “[People] don’t say they cry when they watch me dance,” Zuzu tells us, “When they watch Amina dance, they cry. I know. Because I cry when I watch Amina dance.”

Dance Nation might find itself compared to Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves — another visceral story of girls growing up, competition, ambition, and team dynamics — but Barron’s play is a a different, more varied animal. It’s less interested in creating a realistic audiovisual rendering of teenagerdom — though Barron does have a strong, playful feel for the girls’ locker-room banter — than it is in capturing a specific, sometimes surreal-feeling emotional moment and its lifelong reverberations. To this end, the play’s preteen dancers are portrayed by women of a range of ages, from their 20s to their 60s. (“I was tired of the casting convention of hiring petite 25-year-olds to play 13,” writes Barron in a program note.) Because of these varied bodies, Dance Nation becomes unmoored from time, its story part memory and part prophecy. These bodies are the women these girls will grow up to be. The women still have the girls inside them somewhere, and, somehow, vice versa. As Maeve, the troupe’s oldest and least dance-crazy member, the 60-some-year-old Ellen Maddow is particularly moving. Not because she plays anything sentimentally; rather the opposite. She’s just a kid with her bangs in her eyes, thinking she might like to try astrophysics and admitting in secret to Zuzu that, despite her comparative lack of grace on the dance squad, she can fly.

“It sort of washes over me. Like sleep,” says Maeve calmly of her out-of-body experiences, “And I’m like: Uh-oh. I’m about to fly again.” Maddow stares gently into the middle distance, but then, with a cold shift in Barbara Samuels’s lights, she looks right at us. “And one day I’ll forget that I ever used to fly,” she says simply, “Somehow, along the way, I forgot about it … It was the coolest thing I ever did. And I forgot it.”

Almost all of Barron’s characters step in and out of themselves like this, shifting seamlessly from the perspective of girls waiting for their lives to start to women, wondering what else they might have lost along the way. As the sharp-elbowed, tigerish Ashlee (she’s the one who delivers that FUCKING GENIUS POET monologue), the magnificent Lucy Taylor is particularly gut-wrenching to imagine as both child and adult. She’s often scowling, and she’s the one who rallies the team against their competition with a violent, militant ecstasy like something out of Full Metal Jacket (“WE’RE FUCKING MONSTERS, BABIES, AND WE’RE GONNA MAKE THEM EAT THEIR DICKS AND DIE!”). She’s also protective and tender, and in one of the show’s most devastating moments, she leans her head against Connie’s shoulder as Connie steps out of time to tell us that, many years later, she’ll see Ashlee in New York, and they’ll reveal to each other that they’ve both narrowly avoided suicide. They both struggle with depression and always have, and somehow they knew of their shared shadow before it had even taken full form for either of them, back when they were still dancing.

In one of Barron’s smart gestures, one actor (the steady, affecting Christina Rouner) plays all “the Moms” after appearing in the play’s first scene as a dancer named Vanessa whom, after a frightening injury, we never see again. It feels like a little wink at the tradition of all the stage mothers who, for some reason or other, couldn’t be stars themselves, from Momma Rose on down the line. Even Dance Teacher Pat, who looms over the girls’ lives with godlike authority, gets a moment of revealing smallness. At the end of a long day, alone in the dance studio with his star pupil, Amina, he admonishes her for selling herself short in an audition. He’s full of clichés, all of which hit their mark with the vulnerable Amina: “Don’t get lazy,” “Show me you want it!” He even taps her on the butt, in a gesture that’s somehow both innocent and totally not okay. He’s in his element — but the minute she scampers away, he deflates. Ryan suddenly gives us a picture of a man whose meaning in life really is the Boogie Down Grand Prix. “I guess I should go home,” he sighs, without moving.

And with Amina, both Barron and Shihabi are doing something special. Usually, if characters are indisputably the Best at something, they’re either underdogs in some other way, and therefore we root for them, or they’re personally unappealing so that we can root for the Second Best, who’ll of course come through in the end to prove that they’ve been the Real Best all along. Barron’s too smart for that — and she sees how such a narrative actually undermines young women with real, remarkable talent. No matter how much Zuzu might want it, Amina is the best, and Shihabi shows us that her character’s struggle is with owning that. “Sometimes I think I want to lose,” she admits tearfully, “Like I close my eyes and I say: God. It’s okay, if I lose. I don’t mind this time. Like I feel like I hurt people just by existing.” Men are conditioned to own their talent, their ambition, their space. Women are taught to take up as little space as possible — that if we want something, someone else probably deserves it more, that if we take something, we’re taking it from someone. It’s heartbreaking to listen to the 13-year-old Amina grapple with this conditioning, already so present in her, and it’s thrilling to watch Barron and Evans give it a whirling, panting, defiant middle finger. The young women of Dance Nation are singing of themselves as they dance: “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable.”

Dance Nation is at Playwrights Horizons through June 3.

Theater Review: The Wild Ambition of Dance Nation