BWW Review: Prepubescent Battles Rage in Clare Barron's Exhilarating DANCE NATION
"How're you gonna cap off your prepubescent years?", a stony-faced teacher asks his competitive dance team members, shortly after winning a competition that saw one of their own suffer a season-ending injury.
"Will you be winners?", he asks with the kind of grim seriousness that suggests anything less than emerging victorious at the next three events and then bringing home the trophy at the Nationals would result in a permanent mark of failure on their young lives.
This isn't fun. This is something primal. This is war.
And the seriousness with which each battle is approached is one of the things that makes playwright Clare Barron's exhilarating Dance Nation so good, especially in director/choreographer Lee Sunday Evans' spot-on production. The point isn't to watch the play hoping they win. You just want to see them all get out of it alive.
The young girls - and one boy - who make up Dance Teacher Pat's (Thomas Jay Ryan) squad are all played by adults of ages spreading from 20s to 60s, thus we see the parallels between the issues they face as children and those that await them in adulthood.
The concept gives the author the freedom to realistically show the casual nudity of the locker room and to include scenes where the characters explicitly talk about matters of sex and their changing bodies.
The play opens with the gang performing an innocuous tap routine in sailor suits, but for the final march to glory, Dance Teacher Pat has decided to stir things up with a modern dance ballet about Gandhi. Although everyone expects star dancer Amina (Dina Shihabi) to be assigned the central character, it goes to Connie (Purva Bedi), whose excitement turns to frustration when it turns out that the routine better showcases perpetual second-best Zuzu (Eboni Booth), whose momentary lapse when the piece premieres is instinctively, and controversially, covered by Amina.
But the off-stage drama is becoming increasingly more significant in their lives. There's a graphic, but very strong moment, when Sofia (Camila Canó-Flavía) takes ownership of an ill-timed period and a creepy scene where Connie and Ashlee (Lucy Taylor) don't understand why a strange man in a car is looking at them.
As the only boy in the troupe, the shy Luke (Ikechukwu Ufomadu) lingers in the background, his insignificance in this world exemplified by how the team is always referred to as "girls." He, and Dance Teacher Pat as well, even takes part in a poetic, ritualistic moment when the others chant of the perfection of their pussies.
It's a scene where we simultaneously see them as young girls sharing a moment of self-discovery and as grown women demanding recognition.
"Don't listen to their lies. My pussy is perfect, and it'll stay that way forever," they chant, in a display of pride that comes from their own sense of community, rather than from lessons taught by adults.
"I wish my soul were as perfect as my pussy."