DANCE NATION: Teen Awakening, Gandhi, Power, & Competitive Dance
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: TheatreLab, The Basement, 300 E. Broad St, RVA 23219
Performances: July 11 – August 3, 2019
Ticket Prices: $35 general admission; $25 seniors & industry/RVATA; $15 students and teachers with ID
Info: (804) 506-3533 or theatrelabrva.org
Dance Nation makes you laugh and cringe. Clare Barron’s 2018 play captures a painful, awkward, and gloriously empowering moment in time in the lives of Dance Teacher Pat’s pre-teen and early teen competitive dance team. (Yeah, that is a little confusing but in the play the characters are referred to both as pre-teens and as thirteen-year-olds.)
I, gratefully, have very few clear memories of my teen years, but a post-performance discussion with a much younger acquaintance who grew up in a local dance studio owned by her mother painted a much different picture of Dance Nation.
For me, it was a sometimes amusing, sometimes horrific picture of adolescence with an unusual, even shocking focus on female empowerment. For some younger female viewers, it was a theatrical manifestation and perhaps even validation of their own sometimes tortuous awakening. Some male viewers were enthralled, others, I am sure, are still not sure what to make of teenaged girls talking about masturbation and virginity, and scenes involving blood (menstrual and otherwise) and dancers with vampire teeth hissing at the audience.
This is not the usual rehashing of adolescent angst and teenage trauma. Barron blends hormonal horrors with feral ferocity and Maggie Roop seems to understand and honor this with her mostly clear and unencumbered direction. Dasia Gregg’s locker room set brings the action right up in the face of the audience. There are only two rows, and the second row has the advantage of receiving the full effect of the audio transducers that generate sound you can feel through your seats – reminiscent of the effects in Disney’s “A Bug’s Life” show in the Animal Kingdom theme park.
There is also original music by Joey Luck, with vocals by a team that includes Breezy Lee Potter, Ali Thibodeau, and John Paul Hodge. Michael Jarett’s lighting and Joey Luck’s sound design (that includes lots of heavy breathing) are integral elements of this production and Nicole Morris-Anastasi provided the choreography, which was quite lively in the first act, with the members of the dance team dressed as sailors, their wide smiles painfully pinned in place, their eyes focused on the winner’s trophy.
In the first scene one dancer, Vanessa, played by Maggie McGurn who later plays the moms of many of the dance team members, is eliminated after a leg injury that sends her to the hospital and sidelines her from the team.
The strongest and at the same time most strained relationship is that between Amina (Lydia Hynes) and Zuzu (Trinitee Pearson). Amina is admittedly the strongest dancer on the team, and Zuzu has wanted to be a dancer more than anything since the age of two – but she isn’t quite as good as Amina and struggles to reconcile her friendship with her own self-doubt and Amina’s ambition. Both Hynes and Pearson give searing performances that attempt to cut to the heart of the matter.
But neither comes close to the explosive monologue given by teammate Ashlee, played by Amber Marie Martinez at, the end of Act One. Martinez’s gutsy and raw outpouring on sexuality and power includes words like “beautiful” and “smart” and “SAT,” as well as “bitch,” and the, as far as I know, original phrase, “mo****-fu*****, cun*-munching, piece of sh**” a phrase I don’t recall ever saying or even thinking, at 13 or even at 64.
During the first act, the team warms up at the ballet barre, injecting giggles and wiggles as each of the girls – and the one guy – take turns whispering “pussy,” which later develops into a “perfect pussy” mantra recited by the entire team during the second act – accompanied by an audience-teasing sampling of seat-vibrating audio transducers. (That was my favorite special effect and requires that you get seats in the second or back row to experience the full effect.)
I was never quite sure whether Chris Klinger’s portrayal of Dance Teacher Pat was authentic or creepy. I leaned toward the latter when he lightly tapped Amina on the butt after a private talk, but although she appeared startled and hesitated a moment as she walked away that angle was never pursued. The dance teacher kept his focus on the prize – the regionals, the nationals, whatever winning meant – and had little time for developing the self-esteem or character of his girls. To him, they seemed to be not individuals, but tools to achieve another trophy.
The girls include Amina (Hynes), Zuzu (Pearson), and Ashlee (Martinez), as well as Connie (Sanam Laila Hashemi), Maeve (Kylie M.J. Clark), Sofia (Nicole Morris-Anastasi) and Luke (Marquis Hazelwood). Yes, Luke is the only boy on the team, but the team is always referred to as “the girls,” and there is no indication of Luke’s sexuality, other than a suggestion that he has a crush on Zuzu. Maeve shares a tender scene with Zuzu, where she talks about flying, and Luke also shares a scene with Zuzu, in which she proposes two possible scenarios of her future life as an adult. Luke seemed a little disappointed that neither scenario included him. Pearson handles a variety of delicate situations with great sensitivity, and Hazelwood, while not a central figure, seems sympathetic and sweet.
The characters of Zuzu and Amina are the most highly developed, and there are intriguing scenes involving Ashlee, Connie, and Maeve. The rest of the team, Sofia and Luke are more peripheral, and little is known of Dance Teacher Pat, who is always referred to as Dance Teacher Pat. The Moms add a spark of insight and even humor but are apparently not meant to be any more significant than the trombone-voiced adults in Peanuts cartoons.
Powerful and intense, Dance Nation may stir up long forgotten memories or sound an alarm, depending on your age, gender, or how much you remember of being thirteen years old. The one thing it won’t do is leave you untouched.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Tom Topinka