"Dance Nation" takes its audience back to the confusion of being 13

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

I doubt that (with the exception of dementia sufferers) there is a person alive, no matter how old, who cannot close their eyes and see every detail of certain seismic experiences from their childhoods, no matter how much of them we may have allowed to drift away into the fog that dulls our recollection. We didn’t go through all that we did during those growth years for nothing; these events—positive, negative, and seemingly inconsequential—stick so clearly in our memories because they have become important. Whether we think of them fondly or otherwise, we do think of them; for better or worse, they helped to shape us into the people who we became.

In Dance Nation, now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre, Clare Barron wrestles with this notion. Centering her play on a small Midwestern town’s dance troupe seeking the (limited) fame that accompanies winning tournaments (and the chance to compete in what they see as the ultimate showcase: the national championships in Tampa), Barron mines her own childhood dance experiences (as well as her fascination with TV’s “Dance Moms”) to tell the stories of girls on the cusp of puberty who deal with all of the difficulties that plague that age as well as the complications that arise from competition. But her focus is not just on the experiences of pre-pubescent girls; Barron wants to show us the lasting effects that these experiences can cause.

In order to accomplish this, Barron’s script dictates that a mixed generation group of actors perform the pre-teen roles. Working alongside of her here is director/choreographer Lee Sunday Evans, who also brought the show to the stage in New York, and the cast they have assembled lives up to that instruction. Watching all of these adults step back in time to channel these 12- and 13-year-olds with all of their insecurities coupled with the understanding that their futures are wide open is a fascinating acting exercise, but what makes this play work is our own knowledge of who we were at that age. This is a play about tweens, but it is written for adults, and not only because of all of the bluntly sexual language which—even if it shocks you—is true to girls at this age exploring their own bodies and rebelling against adult oppression. Honestly, as coarse as that dialogue is, what really makes this play adult is the ability (which teens don’t have) of placing what happens in the context of a life to come. 

I suspect that actual pre-adolescent girls might recognize a lot of the moments here, but they’d also be highly embarrassed to see them played out, especially in front of the adults in the audience. (Though first periods, masturbation, and a growing understanding of the way they are viewed by males are universal aspects of girls’ lives, most would rather die than share them with grownups.) Don’t get me wrong, though: yes, there is a lot of talk here about these things because they are important to young people, but the focus of the play is more about how these kids interact with each other as parts of this dance team.

It’s a complicated time of their lives. They are aware that their investment in this lifestyle (and dance is a lifestyle) might lead to opportunities later in life (at least two of the girls envision becoming professional down the road), but they are also becoming aware of the limitations of their own bodies. No matter how much effort they put in, some will inevitably just be better than others. There is a wonderful argument between Audrey Francis, playing a mom—she plays all of them, actually—and Tim Hopper as the demanding dance instructor about whether there is such a thing as “talent,” but all of these dancers know that the answer is yes. It may not seem “fair,” but inevitably someone will get all of the main parts. Still, though they are rivals on the team, the girls may well be best friends otherwise, and the strain that puts on social relationships is also inevitable.

Caroline Nuff and Karen Rodriguez portray the main rivals, and the pain in Nuff’s Zuzu as she finally realizes that Amina (Rodriguez) is simply better is powerful. Equally powerful is Rodriguez’s monologue in which she accepts that excellence and success may well leave her all alone, and that is the price she must be willing to pay. In addition to these two, Shanésia Davis has a standout monologue—the play’s best individual moment—about recognizing her own strengths and being ready to wield them to her advantage and Ariana Burks is perfect as the one getting her first period in an embarrassingly public way. Ellen Maddow’s Maeve, who wants to be an astrophysicist, talks of her memory of being able to fly, though she is getting old enough to start to think it may all have been a dream. Adithi Chandrashekar wins the central dance role of Gandhi only to find that she is mostly sitting down and accepts that with the equanimity of the man himself. And there is a lone boy in the troupe played by Torrey Hanson whose crush on one of the girl dancers leads to some nice moments as well.

Barron also makes it clear that she is aware that privilege plays a major part in the kind of success these girls are striving to achieve. Opportunity usually comes with the ability to pay for it, and these girls are not from wealthy homes. Hopper’s Dance Teacher Pat, who pushes them to be successful by telling them that, if they don’t win, they will not be remembered—a hell of a lot of pressure to put on a 13-year-old—also pointedly reminds them that even the fact that they are dancing on this tiny team from a podunk town is still a privilege that most girls their age don’t have. (This of course puts a whole different kind of pressure on them.)

Evans is an expert both at choreographing the kinds of slick-bordering-on absurd routines that this kind of team produces and at providing the guidance that allows her adult cast to play pre-teens, with all of the physical and emotional awkwardness that entails. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design features a lovely glowing moon and a drop-in toilet (as well as a tremendously creative way to create a “lawn” on a dance floor). Heather Gilbert has fun playing with different kinds of lighting (including fluorescent), and Mikhail Fiksel’s sound and Christine Pascual’s costumes are perfect. 

As Dance Nation immerses its characters in the problems and issues of youth, it also doesn’t let the audience off easily. Though Barron often employs humor in her play, that humor far too often derives from pain. This begins right at the start, when frightened or nervous dancers walk right by one of their compatriots who is lying on the floor, significantly injured. The moments elicit laughter, but it is the kind that comes from the same place that the dancers are coming from: not knowing quite how to react to something very uncomfortable. We are left recognizing that we shouldn’t have laughed in the first place. And maybe that is one of the things Barron wants us all to remember: this time of life was never easy. Remember that next time you get upset with your middle schooler. 

Dance Nation is now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL, until Feb 2. The show runs approximately two hours; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

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