By JEAN LOWERISON | Downtown News/Uptown News
I have always considered dance, like music, a civilizing force in the world. But Clare Barron’s “Dance Nation” (a 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist) disabused me of that notion, at least when it comes to competitive dance.
Picture yourself somewhere in small-town Ohio, where dance teacher Pat (Daren Scott) is trying to ready the seven girls and one lone boy in his troupe for a dance competition that could eventually lead to dance nirvana for them — a trip to Tampa for the national competition. But first they must win three preliminary rounds.
The conceit of the play depends on the audience imagining a cast of 20-to-60-year-old dancers on the stage are all about 13, and that they are as serious about winning as Pat is. Unlike singing (which many like me managed to do non-competitively and quite happily at that age), these girls are so serious about winning that the fangs (literally) will come out, though at least they don’t resort to tripping each other.
Pat is by turns snarky and encouraging, but let’s face it: he wants this team to win as much for himself as for them.
Luke (played by Eddie Yaroch) — is especially amusing as the lone boy drowning in the sea of female hormones surrounding him.
Moxie Theatre’s artistic director, Jennifer Eve Thorn, helms this crazy, unsettling, amusing tour through early female adolescence, which plays through Sept. 15.
Pat has choreographed a dance about Gandhi and resistance. So who will dance Gandhi? Several (probably all) of the girls want the role. But there is a talent hierarchy; the uncontested best dancer is Amira (Wendy Maples). The worst is Zuzu (Joy Yvonne Jones), who looks most like a dancer (and like a winner). But Connie (Farah Dinga) — who has the right look and demeanor — gets the nod. Pat, who seems to like Zuzu despite her evident lack of talent, adds another character — the spirit of Gandhi — and gives that role to Zuzu.
“Dance Nation” is set in the dance world, but it’s really about ambition, desire and finding oneself in the often confusing teen world. In between rehearsals, injuries (Vanessa is lost to injury in the first scene) and the excitement and terror of competition, these girls will have conversations about puzzling issues like masturbation, circumcision and having one’s first period, not to mention the SATs and how to nail the math section, and pondering whether being the best — at dance or anything else — is even a good thing.
Amina speaks for teacher’s pets everywhere when she says, “Sometimes I think I want to lose… Like I feel I hurt people just by existing.”
It’s a whirlwind of a play about confidence and its lack, building a team, wondering what’s going on in a teen girl’s body — and dancer moms, three of whom (all played by Sarah Karpicus Violet) show up to “help.”
This West Coast premiere boasts excellent acting all around, and fine direction by Thorn. She’s helped by Reiko Huffman’s movable, sectional set design, Kate Bishop’s costumes and fine lighting and sound design by Nate Parde and Lily Voon.
Each girl has a definite personality, and no shyness at all in talking about her physical attributes. Ashlee (Andréa Agosto) goes on a monologue rampage about her “epic ass.” Sofia (Sandra Ruiz) is all ready until she freaks out at the sight of her first period. There’s even a confidence-building bit about the “perfect” p-word that all the girls claim.
In a sudden time shift, Li-Anne Rowswell gives us a glimpse of the adult that Maeve will become.
“Dance Nation” has a lot of vulgar and sexual language, so don’t bring the very young. But if you were a child dancer — or know someone who was or is — this will either validate what she knows or give her a different impression about the art of competitive dance.
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at email@example.com.