BWW Interview: Ellen Maddow Trips the Light Fantastic in DANCE NATION
It's not easy being a teen. It's even harder portraying one when you're in your 60s.
"I was drawn to Dance Nation originally after doing a reading of another one of Clare's plays," said Maddow of playwright Clare Barron. "When I read it, I just had this idea that I might be good playing this character. I thought it was a very daring and intelligent play."
It's a risqué production that tackles the struggles that 13-year-olds have with ambition, competition, sexuality and friendship. There's a locker-room strip scene, blood and even vampire teeth. And dancing, loads of dancing.
"I feel it in my back and shoulders and knees," Maddow shared before another rigorous performance. Fortunately, a physical therapist makes frequent visits for the cast.
"It's a really strong look at what happens as you grow up and the way women deal with ambition," Maddow said. "It's very fierce and I like that it goes out on a limb to explore the inner workings of these teenagers. Even though I'm close to 70, I can still relate to the adolescent part of me."
The dance troupe members are portrayed by actors in their 20s to 60s. They are rehearsing for a national competition led by dance teacher Pat (Thomas Jay Ryan). The team consists of six girls (Purva Bedi, Dina Shihabi, Eboni Booth, Camila Canó-Flaviá, Lucy Taylor and Maddow and one boy, Ikechukwu Ufomadu.
Their competition entry is a heady one-tackling the life and legacy of Gandhi. The unlikely chosen lead dancer is Zuzu (Booth), who is ferocious in her drive to be best, but freezes when she should be swirling.
"I'm still in touch with my adolescent life," said Maddow. "When I think of myself as almost 70, I'm shocked," she said with a laugh. "Everything was so extreme at that age, everything was a big deal. Maeve is described as the least talented of the dancers and not as invested in being the center of attention or accolades.
"She wants to be an astrophysicist and has another life, one where in her imagination, she's had an experience of flying. She has a complex, vivid inner life with interests beyond the dance studio.
"It's a wonderful memory play, looking backward and forward. Maeve doesn't feel she has to conform and tends to wear clothes that are a little bizarre. She has a strong sense of herself," Maddow reflected.
DANCE NATION isn't so much a MEAN GIRLS kind of play, but it does tackle the competitive drive that can consume a teen's life. "I don't think of them as ruthless; everyone is trying to do their best," Maddow said. "They're not always going to be good at doing what they love the best. That's what dance teacher Pat talks about."
Amina, the most talented of the dancers, easily outshines the bunch and is the obvious choice for the lead of the Gandhi dance. In a surprising turn, Zuzu is chosen, which doesn't sit well with some of the teens. Tensions flare and passionate conversation turns toward masturbation, virginity, menstruation and life's ambitions.
"Amina really wants to win and usually does and when she doesn't, a kind of ferocity arises," Maddow explained. "She always has won and it's embarrassing for her when she doesn't."
Maddow is a founding member of The Talking Band, known for its importance in the avant-garde theater community, which performs experimental multidisciplinary work.
She's been a dancer for as long as she can remember. Her mother was a member of the Martha Graham Company, and exposure to modern dance was part of her upbringing. Maddow is also a writer and composer.
DANCE NATION peals back the layers of contradiction inherent in being 13. There are moments of literal blood-letting when one dancer gets her first period before a performance. It's not a play for the squeamish.
"I enjoy dancing and always took dance lessons. I've found as you get older you have to keep moving, so this show has been good for me in many ways," Maddow said. "I once did a play where I was sitting mostly and now I try to get out and walk every day. It's better for my knees, my posture, things that need to be dealt with daily."
Maddow has also worked with a senior movement dance company and looks forward to returning to it. Although physically taxing, Dance Nation is proving to be a tonic for her. "It's pretty much becoming second nature and it feels really good to move around so much," she said.
Maddow's own teen years were nerdy ones. "I was that age in the '60s and even though my parents were bohemians, I bought into a culture of demureness. I never told anyone what grades I got because I thought they would hate me," Maddow said with a laugh. "There was a lot of pressure not to be smart. It would seal your doom socially. I've always wanted to be nice and generous and a good friend. I'm still navigating that area."
Maddow came of age in California where, after high school, kids acquired agents right after graduating. "I didn't quite fit in. I was always looking for some kind of theater where actors had say. So I was there sweeping the floor, making coffee and then when they needed someone to play the drum without speeding up, I got to be in the company," she said.
Audience reaction to Dance Nation has been complex, she said. "Sometimes we have a lot of people laughing at certain points and some gasp. I think this play attracts younger people. There were a lot of people in their 20s and 30s who really got it," Maddow said. "I'm not as sure with the older audience.
"DANCE NATION slides around between naturalism and unrealism and some people may feel confused," Maddow said. "Just like being a teenager."
Dance Nation is playing at Playwrights Horizon, 416 West 42nd Street. It's directed and choreographed by Lee Sunday Evans, artistic direction by Tim Sanford, scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume design by Ásta Bennie Hostetter and lighting design by Barbara Samuels. Christina Rouner plays the moms.