Review: DANCE NATION Wins at BlueBarn Theatre

Discover the thought-provoking and unique one-act play, DANCE NATION, at BlueBarn Theatre.

By: May. 30, 2023
Review: DANCE NATION Wins at BlueBarn Theatre

Writer Clare Barron once said in an interview that sometimes plays are chosen by the theatre industry because it likes to pick one person and give them everything. Then because it gets “anointed in some way, all these institutions are like, 'This play, this play, this play…' " I wonder if that is how her DANCE NATION became a finalist for a 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama? Probably not. There is much to like in this one act dramedy about a dance troupe of 13 year old girls hoping to win a trip to Tampa Bay while also snagging the lead. On the surface it's a fun tale with lively music and dance sequences. But underneath it is deeper. It is about learning to maintain friendships, sort out feelings about winning and losing, and discover self worth.

DANCE NATION does something I hadn’t seen before—it casts actors of all ages to represent these 13 year old girls. And oddly enough, it works. Throwing a boy (Francisco Franco) into the mix adds a calming contrast to the effervescent prepubescent girls.

Susan Clement continues to direct unusual, unique productions at the BlueBarn Theatre in Omaha. Her deft handling of intimate subjects is as tasteful as possible with the sometimes graphic scenes. 

The story focuses on relationships within the realm of dance competition. Friendships among young girls are tricky. There’s a fine balance between wanting to be the best and knowing that being better than someone else may cost a friendship. There’s a fine balance between supportive parents and those who seek satisfaction through their child's achievements. There’s a fine balance between a teacher's choice of the best and what may be the fairest.

As the story opens, the girls pay homage to a former dancer from their studio who has gone on to become successful. Dance Teacher Pat (Kevin Barratt) asks them about girls from prior years whom the girls cannot name. He tells them, “Girls never existed when they lost.”

It isn’t even enough to be good. Second best dancer Zuzu (Kylah D'Jai) is told by her mother that she is better than best dancer Amina (Courney Stein Cairncross), but Zuzu tells herself that critics don’t say she is "sensational."

The competition between Amina and Zuzu wears on their friendship to the point Zuzu doesn’t feel she can talk about dancing with her best friend anymore. Nor can she watch Amina dance. They’ve gone from excessively flattering each other and hoping they both get the lead to realizing that one of them will win and the other will lose. When Amina wins another competition and comes in wearing her tiara, she covers it with her hoodie. “It’s not a bad thing to be the star. I still lose sometimes.” But it is hard being better than your friend. Her relationship with the other girls also deteriorates as the girls tell her, “Instead of friends, all you have is crowns.” Courtney Stein Cairncross does a superb job conveying the struggle Amina feels between winning and losing.

While the others are not as aggressively competitive, they deal with their own feelings of insecurity. Nina Washington powers onto the stage with a force of personality as Ashlee. Her monologue hits home as she privately acknowledges her worth and publicly keeps it to herself. She knows that she is beautiful. She knows that she is probably smarter than most people. But when someone mentions her physical beauty or her intelligence, she denies it with an automatic “no.”

The girls are not the only story. The moms, all played by Julie Fitzgerald Ryan, cover every dance mom. Is she supportive or is she pushing? Is she encouraging or is she quietly mentioning details that insinuate her daughter could have done better? Is she a loving presence or is she a presence at all?

There are many hilarious moments in the play. There is also some unnecessary vulgarity that doesn’t further the story, which is why DANCE NATION is not recommended for those under 18 years old. But overall, the play speaks to my former 13 year old self. If this were a dance competition, I would call it a win.

Performance Dates:  May 25th – June 25th | Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm; Sun, June 4th and June 11th at 6:00 pm. An ASL performance is scheduled for Thursday, June 1st.

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BlueBarn Theatre (402) 345-1576

Photo credit: (Nina Washington, Natalie Hanson, Courtney Stein Cairncross) BlueBarn Theatre


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