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The faces on many as we made our way out of the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons were strangely happy and confused, all rolled up together. Many wondered aloud, what exactly was that they had just witnessed? And part of me could understand that state of being, because at moments throughout this spell-binding drama that revolves around a team of 13 year old girls working hard towards the goal of winning a dance competition in Florida, I also must have had that same look on my face. Clare Barron, the fantastic young playwright who won a 2015 Obie Award for her play, You Got Older, has delivered unto us Dance Nation, a new play that is a strange and mysterious beast, loud and hilarious, dark and disturbing, presenting itself as one thing, while becoming quite another few things in its magical next movement. It’s highly entertaining and wondrously funny, while also being drenched in the sweat of something quite powerful and aggressive all at the same. Dance Nation is complex and unique, invigorating your soul and your heart, while forcing your brain to do some masterful dance flips to wrap itself around all the layers presented.
This band of young teenage girls are not at all what one would expect from that first delicious tap dance number. Pushed and prodded by the fantastically created bully and pseudo-Dance Mom stand-in, Dance Teacher Pat, wondrously portrayed by Thomas Jay Ryan (Broadway’s The Crucible), these young girls are anything but young, and miraculously all about their age. They are a two-sided creation, young girls terrified about what they may become, and older women looking back at the ghosts of their younger selves. It’s so meta-fantastic in it’s complexity, watching an older actress play a younger self, digging into the youthfulness of the adventure with the maturity at the heart. Played by a band of highly talented actresses whose age range has nothing to do with their character, they dare to ask the audience to see these teenage girls as actually young women, bursting at the seams, or fighting hard to stay safely tucked inside. Their sweat is their power, literally at moments, even when it is imaginary.
The white hot core of the piece comes midway when a verbal battle between one of the many dance moms (Christina Rouner) and Dance Teacher Pat leads to a pussy barre game, than a highly carnivorous and feral dance moment, scaring away the Dance Teacher by their sexual energy and aggression. But it doesn’t end there, the ferocity of Zuzu’s fangs, played with powerful depth by the glorious Eboni Booth (LCT3’s After the Blast) releases a rebellion of sexual energy, culminating with a monologue by Ashlee, played majestically and powerfully by Lucy Taylor (ERS/Public’s The Sound and the Fury). This young woman is claiming her beautiful self in a way that makes the world uncomfortable and anxious, and I couldn’t help but notice the stillness and discomfort hanging over the audience. Maybe this is all in my imagination, but as she powers through this expression of sexual growth and maturity, the crowd started to cough. Not just once or twice, but a chorus of coughing ricochetted through the audience in a way that I had never heard before, especially within the stillness and straightforwardness of the monologue from this magnificent person standing alone center stage. I wondered if this had something to do with these strong aggressively-seeming words coming out of what is meant to be a 13 year old girl’s mouth, but in actuality, it is being expressed by an older actress’ voice and body. The layering is no ordinary dance, but something powerful in that complex dynamic. She’s a young woman, claiming her primal power by owning her beauty and ultimate power over the world, and with that power, she’s going to make everyone her bitch, basically. That image is extreme and real, ferocious beyond the words.
Within Dance Nation, menstrual blood becomes warrior paint, as the canvas explodes into all developmental ideas of maturity and womanhood. Wonderfully realized by scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado (Roundabout’s Kingdom Come), costume designer Ásta Bennie Hostetter (Ars Nova’s The Lucky Ones), lighting designer Barbara Samuels (PR’s The Rape of…), and sound design by Brandon Wolcott (PH’s The Profane), we find tucked inside, these miraculous quiet scenes of introspection and dreams, laced with fear of the unknown and the dawning of a new day. There are so many moments of purity and raw magic. When Amina, played tenderly by Dina Shihabi (Cherry Lane’s Extreme Girls and One Guy) has a moral crisis revolving around the idea that her success will come at the cost of someone else’s failure, it is something she can’t quite wrap her head around. These woman, including Connie, played by Purva Bedi (NYTW’s An Ordinary Muslim), Sofia, portrayed by Camila Canó-Flaviá (Chester’s My Jane), and the magnificent Maeve, played by Ellen Maddow (Dixon Place’s The Peripherals), the one we all have to wait for, might in fact be all women, or maybe just one, but as directed with clarity and abstract expressionism by the great Lee Sunday Evans (Public’s The Winter’s Tale), it is in their yearning and questioning mindsets, playing with fantasy and expectations that the glory of these young women can be found. The urgency is real and planted in every dance move and side step, as if their life depended on it. Bad ass adult actresses looking at their teenage selves, and saying, “Dear God, let me play the part of Gandhi..“.