Theatre en Bloc's Dance Nation
This production of Clare Barron's play invokes the experience of puberty for girls, in all its allure and terror
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Sept. 6, 2019
You see a lot of it in Dance Nation – blood on arms, on legs, on faces, blood that never goes away. Indeed, you see so much that it's like some fiend is stalking the girls on the Liverpool, Ohio, competitive dance team. And in a sense, one is. You know how in those old horror films, the babysitter gets the police to trace the phone calls she's getting from some threatening creep only to be told, "The calls are coming from inside the house!"? In Clare Barron's bold, darkly comic, disturbing play, the threat to the girls is coming from inside their bodies. It's puberty.
At the very time these preteens are fighting their way to Tampa Bay for the Boogie Down Grand Prix national championships, they're also wrestling with encroaching adolescence – what it will mean for them, what it'll do to them. They've heard about periods, about sex and how it supposedly works (really, he puts that in there?!), but right now it's still rumors and the girls have no idea how all that will truly feel or what feelings will wash over them then. Right now, they still have the desires and confidence of girlhood, when they believe they can do anything – be a famous dancer or an astrophysicist or even, as one girl puts it when she imagines fully embracing her power, "the motherfucking KING of your motherfucking WORLD." And they believe they can take their dance about Gandhi – social justice-themed dances seem all the rage this year – all the way to the big trophy.
You may think you've seen the "youth with identity issues through the lens of competition" thing before, what with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee or The Wolves, but you haven't seen it treated like this. Barron's freed herself – imaginatively, emotionally, theatrically, thematically – to take the topic in wilder, darker, deeper directions. Her girls are played by adults, in what seems less a casting gimmick than a doorway into memory, as if we're seeing these figures recall this time in their pasts. That's especially true when characters break out of a scene and speak as their older selves, sharing some glimpse of their futures. The language frequently explodes into a kind of poetry that's rich and raw, articulating the pain and fear and fury in the hearts of middle school girls that they might not have words for. Then there's the blood, along with a handful of other horror- film elements – fangs that sprout in the girls' mouths, a full moon looming over the set – that play on the idea of transformation and, oh yes, a curse, all the better to revive the terror of that age, that simultaneously alluring and frightening hingepoint of change, and make it visceral for us grownups who may have forgotten the intensity with which puberty stalked us.
Under Jenny Lavery's direction, Theatre en Bloc's production embraces the ferocity of Barron's script. When those fangs are bared, the ensemble takes on the character of a wolf pack, primed to tear through flesh. (Susan Myburgh's Sofia actually does, biting into her arm like it's prey she's just brought down.) They mouth every "motherfucker" with a fury that would send David Mamet's alpha males whimpering away – Katy Atkinson's Ashlee, the would-be MF-ing king of the MF-ing world, taking this to the most ass-kicking heights – and their chant of "the power of the pussy" is a primal battle cry.
And yet, in the midst of all this aggression and ownership of power are doubts and anxieties that chip away at the fangs and fierceness. Ashlee ends her ode to her badass self asking, "What am I going to do with all this power?" and hoping she doesn't "pussy out." Perennial runner-up Zuzu knows she's not that good, and Sarah Danko's admission of that pulls up the shattered self-esteem every child has felt. Even the team's anointed star, Amina, worries about how others see her, and in her dressing down by Dance Teacher Pat – with Dennis Bailey channeling every guilt-inducing coach ever – Amy Downing's embarrassed look and downcast eyes make Amina's shame heart-wrenching. There's vulnerability in these young lives, and if Sofia getting her period at the worst possible moment is any sign, the changes to come could well make things worse.
What lies ahead? Womanhood? Success? Losing your virginity? The uncertainty is scary, Dance Nation tells us. And when the laughter is quieted, it reveals little more for these dancers than depression and loss. Oh, and there will be blood.
Dance NationRollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
Through Sept. 15
Running time: 1 hr., 40 min.