Brilliantly written, flawlessly executed — if you’re only going to attend one theatrical production this year, Theatre en Bloc’s “Dance Nation” should be it.
On its surface, Dance Nation follows the story of a pre-teen competitive dance troupe and their dance teacher through the audition, rehearsal, performance and post-performance process. If you don’t know what the dance studio competition world looks like, let me paint you a picture.
Most of your life outside of school is spent in the studio. It is your home away from home, the place where your blood, sweat and tears seep into the sprung floor, forever holding physical traces of your contribution to the studio’s successes (or failures). Your dance teacher is your mentor, the person you want to please most, no matter how often he or she has broken you down or zapped your confidence. Your fellow dancers are your closest friends, and also your biggest rivals. Everyone covets the starring role, the solo. There is usually one dancer who always gets it. You love her because you want to be like her, you hate her because she is better than you. Cattiness, jealousy and arguments abound, but in the end, you all love each other. You boost each other’s spirits and goof off at the Ballet barre when your teacher steps out of the room. You see each other naked in the dressing room. You talk about your fears and your limitations. You try to help each other get that trick or that turn. You and your teammates form a special bond that can only come from spending so many hours together, on a physical and emotional journey, in the same space that is a shared home to each of you, all in a grand effort to be crowned “National Champions.” And when it comes to that adrenaline-pumping moment when you are excitedly bouncing off the backstage walls awaiting the announcement of your studio name and routine number, any remaining tension or pettiness among you dissolves and you are united. You strut out to your position onstage and set your eyes on the judges with only one thing on your mind: WIN.
I know this because I was a competitive dancer from the time I was eight years old until I graduated from high school. And I can promise you, Dance Nation captured the ambiance of this corner of the dance world with impeccable precision.
But that’s not all playwright Clare Barron gave us with this masterpiece. She brought us back to our childhoods, back to that time of teen angst we all experienced. That short phase in life when we had so much energy coupled with so many questions and a voracious drive bound by the limitation of not yet really knowing who we are or what it means to be empowered. Ultimately, Dance Nation is about exactly this – our own power. Finding it, acknowledging it and owning it without apology.
The show opens with a tap dance performed by an eight-person dance team dressed in sailor costumes. By the end of the routine, the real audience (that’s us) realizes that the dancers are on a stage within a stage, at competition. Their routine’s final pose lands with their backs to us, and when a curtain in the middle of the Rollins Theatre stage closes, we realize we are witnessing what takes place backstage when the performance is over. It was a clever method to hurl us, the real audience, directly into the story. From this point on, Dance Nation takes us through one of the most absurdly hilarious and meaningful performances I’ve ever seen. The entire intermission-free play is packed solid with twists and turns (literally) of wildly amusing chants, choreography and facial expressions, interspersed with dialogue that moves the story forward. From time to time, the audience is treated to monologues by each character that, with well-timed lighting cues, seem to be observations made, then and now, of one’s own life experiences.
In fact, one of the most poignant monologues of the show is when dancer Maeve, noted in the program as “the oldest and least talented dancer on the team” and played by Elise Ogden, asks Zuzu (noted as “always second best”) if she has ever flown. Maeve explains how she feels a tingling that begins in her toes and spreads upward, and how she knows that she’s about to float up and out of her body. She tells her a story about how she floated down a staircase one time, and how she always thinks she’s going to fall, but doesn’t. But then she looks out at the audience, and suddenly seems older, not the pre-teen dancer we know her as, but a ghost of that person, and she tells us that she forgot she could do this, “fly or float or whatever…” It was a message to us all: remember the things you’ve done and can do.
The actors were cast perfectly for their roles. Dennis Bailey, who plays Dance Teacher Pat, was a standout with his keen depiction of the dark side of competition dance instruction. I forgot to breathe when actress Katy Atkinson, who plays dancer Ashlee, performed her monologue – an explosive foray into the meaning of unapologetic self-confidence. And actresses Amy Downing (Amina, “the star dancer”) and Sarah Danko (Zuzu) played off each other superbly as best friend rivals.
Dance Nation’s set is a perfect replica of every childhood dance studio, complete with dance photos on the wall and a viewing window with curtains that look into the studio lobby where Dance Moms sit and watch with a hawk’s eye. But it is multi-functional in that it also serves as a stage, a dressing room and various other places like a bathroom where a young girl deals with the mess of her first menstrual cycle. The lighting and sound designs provide clear indicators of where we are headed next in the story and give clues as to which time period we might be witnessing. I was also impressed with the costume design, from the matching pink dance bags to the very last speck of glitter on the team jackets’ logos. The entire crew deserves a continuous round of applause.
As a whole, the production was a seamless flow of emotionality and the human experience. Without giving too much away (really, you need to see this show), what I can tell you is that the choreography and the execution of the dance routines are perfect in an imperfect way… on purpose. One of my personal favorites was the tongue dance we were treated to in the very first dance studio scene, and when we finally got to see the routine about Ghandi that the dancers hope will be their winning ticket to Nationals… well, I can honestly say I don’t think another dance has ever made me laugh so hard. Also, if the word “pussy” offends you, then you should definitely be the first person in line at the box office.
Dance Nation runs through September 15 at the Long Center. Tickets are available here.