BWW Review: DANCE NATION from WET - High on Shock, Low on Story
Believe it or not, Dear Readers, I was a dancer in my youth. I took tap lessons for 12 years starting in 3rd Grade. And while I didn't do much in the way of competitions, I did see my fair share of stage moms and dancer heartache. So, a play such as Clare Barron's "Dance Nation", currently being offered from Washington Ensemble Theatre, should be right up my alley. Or it would be if it had a real story. Instead what we got was a too-long one act play that chose to shock more than anything else. With a series of vignettes and dance numbers that ultimately amounted to nothing, the show repeatedly attempts to be over the top rather than clever and has no arc or through line to hold it all together.
In this world of pre-teen dancers, the girls (and one boy), Zuzu, Ashlee, Luke, Sofia, Connie, Maeve, and Amina (Rheanna Atendido, Erin Bednarz, Mikey Flores, Marty Mukhalian, Varsha Raghavan, Maggie L. Rogers, and Sofía Raquel Sánchez), under the stern direction of Dance Teacher Pat (Nik Doner) and the watchful eyes of their moms (all played by Hannah Victoria Franklin) prepare to take on a series of dance competitions in the hopes of going all the way to nationals. But, of course, the road to nationals is fraught with injuries, jealousy, and puberty.
This could amount to an engaging and heartfelt story but instead, Barron chooses to go for the low hanging fruit of adults acting like teens talking about masturbation, circumcision, and in one, last ditch, desperate plea for laughs, how all their "pussies are perfection", and calling it all comedy. Call me crazy but I prefer my comedy to have a brain and my plays to have a story. Co-director Bobbin Ramsey and co-director and choreographer Alyza DelPan-Monley seem to relish in this shock value over substance as they run with it. There's the overly gratuitous nude scene where the girls get changed for no reason, the opening scene where everyone stands facing upstage blocking the one person speaking, and the interminable dance number where all the girls become bloody vampires and writhe and contort themselves into a frenzy in order to convey ... well, I'm not sure what. There are some few moments of meaning as the girls break into monologues about growing older, about their beauty, or their talent, or their loss of innocence, but those moments are fairly cliché and things pulled right from every Afterschool Special, and once conveyed are quickly abandoned for another excuse to talk about vaginas.
The cast has a few touching moments in those monologues. Atendido talking about wanting to dance so well that it wipes away her Mom's cancer is sweet. The brief moment with Sánchez where they realize they're willing to give everything up for dance is well handled. And I must mention Franklin who tackles all the Moms quite well. But those brief shining moments aren't enough to make up for the surrounding cavalcade of noise.
Shows like this make me walk away with more questions than I came in with. Whose story are you trying to tell? What story are you trying to tell? Why do you want to tell this story? And what do you want the audience to come away from this thinking/feeling? Without a clear answer to those questions, a show is just so much fluff. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give Washington Ensemble Theatre's production of "Dance Nation" a "I wasn't so much shocked as annoyed" NAH. I'm just glad my time at the Dance Studio was never like this.
"Dance Nation" from Washington Ensemble Theatre performs at 12th Ave Arts through February 3rd. For tickets or information visit them online at www.washingtonensemble.org.