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Theatre in Review: Dance Nation (Playwrights Horizons)

Photo: Joan Marcus

That Clare Barron is a sly one; she has a sneaky way of making you wonder where on earth she is going with an idea -- and then, before you know it, you've been won over. So it was with You Got Older, a 2014 work about adult children coming together to care for their gravely ill father -- a situation treated with surprising humor and oddball insight. So it is with Dance Nation, which, at times, verges on the perplexing. It consists of this, that, and the other, a collection of moods and digressions folded into a dramatic line that crab-walks along, sliding from one peculiar detail to the next. And yet, not unlike the enchantress one of her characters aspires to be, Barron casts a definite spell.

Dance Nation begins on a faintly macabre note, with a group of dancers, in sailor suits, executing a tap routine. After it finishes, one of them is left lying on the floor, bleeding, oddly ignored by the others. She is assured by a voice on the God mic that an ambulance is on its way, but the scene ends with her being unceremoniously dragged upstage, disappearing behind the show curtain. This poor soul is one of the students of Dance Teacher Pat, the kind of small-time dictator who has ruined a thousand childhoods. Back at his small-town dance academy, he informs his charges that the path to victory in the national competition lies in a series of runups, to be held in Akron, Ohio, then Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey, and, finally, in Tampa Bay. (Barron slips in a funny inside joke about the Broadway casting agent Bernie Telsey, who, for these kids, is only slightly less impressive a personage than God himself.) Unable to distinguish between discipline and sadism, he upbraids Maeve, one of the dancers, for having messy hair, telling her to get a hair tie out of her locker. As she does so, everyone stands at attention, while Pat says, in a voice rich in knowledge of the world's woes, "Now we get to wait for Maeve."

It's everyone's good luck that Dance Teacher Pat is played by Thomas Jay Ryan, his face oozing sympathetic understanding for his young charges even as he hands out scalding truths like candy. (Pointing to one of his rare losing teams, he says, mournfully, "Who were the girls in 1996? We don't know. It's like they never existed.") This is the point where you're likely to notice that his students, who are supposed to be thirteen or so, are played actors ranging in age from mid-twenties to just this side of seventy. But what seems at first like a cutesy affectation soon comes across as the only sensible way of presenting a play about young people that includes nudity and frank discussions of puberty and sexuality.

In truth, the main plot hook -- in which Dance Teacher Pat cracks the psychological whip, driving his charges toward the nationals -- is the play's weakest aspect, playing coming across at certain moments like a rejected script for an episode of Glee. At times, Barron doesn't really seem to know how to handle Dance Teacher Pat and his outsized ambitions, and at least one farcical idea -- a competition dance conceived to pay tribute to Mahatma Gandhi -- never pays off, largely because the playwright seems to lose interest in its comic possibilities. What attracts her are the stresses and strains of young women dealing with profound changes to their bodies, coupled with bursts of anarchic energy, in their hypercompetitive, ruthlessly disciplined environment.

There's a fairly standard conflict at its center, between Amina, who is Dance Teacher Pat's favorite, and the less-talented, but equally ambitious, Zuzu. Most of the time, however, Barron spins out a series of vignettes that are more like variations on a theme of the wilds of adolescence: the kids trying to rehearse while, on the other side of the wall, Dance Teacher Pat has a violent argument with Zuzu's mother; a girl experiencing her first menstrual flow, just before curtain time; a bewildered young adolescent, asking about masturbation, "You're supposed to think about something?"; another girl's insanely detailed romantic fantasies, which come complete with elaborate mise-en-scènes. These young things, most of whom aren't serious about dance, are beginning to feel their power, a point made indelibly when they take part in a group ode to the power of...well, certain anatomical parts. (Let's just say that Donald Trump would not be amused.)

Lee Sunday Evans, who directed and choreographed, orchestrates this little circus with a fair amount of bravado, putting together a little improvisation with a nod to A Chorus Line, staging a dance that suddenly turns into a hormone-fueled bacchanal complete with bared fangs, and charting the sudden squalls that arise among them and just as quickly disappear. The director's skill with the material is especially fortunate, since the script has it ragged moments and dead ends, as well bits of humor that don't quite land. It also has the device that is rapidly becoming a new cliché: a change in the lighting cues for a monologue in which a character sees deeply into the future. But it's easy to be taken with these unruly young people; Dance Nation sometimes seems a little bit reminiscent of Sarah DeLappe's The Wolves in its depiction of female bonding in a high-pressure competition situation. But Barron's style is unapologetically, even defiantly, her own.

In addition to Ryan, who makes Dance Teacher Pat's pre-show pep talk into the stuff of many future analytic sessions -- he instructs the kids to close their eyes, exhale, and contemplate how many people have died in the past second -- the cast is totally on their playwright's wavelength. Dina Shihabi is touching as Amina, who is more than a little afraid of her own ambition. "Like you guys lose all the time," she tells the others. "Whatever. But if I lose, I'm like a perfectionist.") Eboni Booth brings a sunny smile and no-nonsense manner to Zuzu, the troupe's perpetual also-ran and, awkwardly, Amina's best friend. In an especially telling moment, Zuzu informs Amina that they can no longer discuss dance, as she can't bear to hear any more about Amina's many advantages; Amina agrees, and so they stare at each other for a long moment, suddenly realizing they have nothing else to say to each other.

Also making strong impressions are Purva Bedi, unrecognizable from her recent turn as a London wife and career woman in An Ordinary Muslim, as the group's coolest commentator; downtown star Ellen Maddow as the forever-late Maeve, delivering a surreal monologue about her secret flying abilities; and Ikechukwu Ufomadu as the only boy in the bunch, who carries a supersized torch for Zuzu.

Arnulfo Maldonado's set design takes in the dance studio and a variety of stages, as well as other locations; wait for the lightbox moon that occasionally crosses the stage. Barbara Samuels' lighting confidently mixes daytime washes with onstage looks and effects that suggest the characters' interior states. Except for an unfortunate red dress that makes Amina look like she is auditioning to play Offred in The Handmaid's Tale, Ásta Bennie Hostetter's costumes are thoughtfully put together. Brandon Wolcott's sound design takes in several musical selections and such effects as applause and birdsong.

Dance Nation ends with a series of scenes that indicate that whatever happens -- one girl is only too happy to flee the ballet barre forever while another embraces her artistic ambitions in a near frenzy -- there is nothing quite like being on the edge of maturity and coming to grips with the power unleashed. These girls are fierce, and if he isn't careful, one of these days Dance Teacher Pat will have his head handed to him. -- David Barbour

(9 May 2018)

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