Theatre en Bloc’s latest production, “Dance Nation” by Clare Barron, trades on a familiar cultural touchstone for folks living in America in 2019 — namely the “viciousness” of the dance world. Reality TV has taught us that “dance moms” and their daughters especially operate in a domain of physical brutality and social callousness that is often captivatingly at odds with the grace they perform. By now, it’s a familiar story.
This play peers inside of that label — vicious — and finds literal bloodthirst co-mingled with tenderness and confusion. Rather than a (derivative) story of catty pre-teen women, Barron seems more interested in exploring the extreme natural conclusions of extreme circumstances in plain sight. What’s remarkable in production is that the “Too Real” and the grimly absurd can stand side by side on stage performing the same routine.
The gruesome loss of one of the team members (Giselle Maria Muñoz) at the top of the show in an horrific, extended depiction of a knee injury sustained by a character we don’t even know or care about enough not to laugh, signals just how grizzly this nation is. Director Jenny Lavery pushes the moment to linger fully-lit downstage center through the cycle of horror to humor and back again several times. We are asked to sit with it and maybe even to interrogate what it is we are expecting to see in a play about young women.
Early on, Lavery also seems to be flagging bodies as a controlling and contested subject of the play — skilled bodies, changing bodies, sexual bodies, fallible bodies. At one point, one of the dancers, Connie (Whitney Abraham), movingly ponders just what it means to have endured so many years with your body in the same room as another persons. In these and other instances in dressing rooms — dance routines seen only in the face, sleeping in a car on the way home from rehearsal, trying to figure out tampons, or throwing oneself against a wall in which bodies are centered — this production touches the profoundest reaches of Barron’s Susan Smith Blackburn Prize-winning script.
Of course, there is a story of a pre-teen dance team that desires nothing more than to make it to nationals in Tampa Bay. The team members, all adult women playing 11-to-14-year-olds, are by degrees zany, vengeful, and puzzling. This ensemble is certifiably belly laugh-worthy, expertly pairing cringe with the achingly truthful. Between star dancer Amina (Amy Downing) and her best friend/always second best, Zuzu (Sarah Danko), the tension is turbo charged from the first moment they compliment each other. Danko in particular gets the chance to develop Zuzu, and by the time she confronts the possibility of revising her life’s dream, it stings.
While Zuzu and Amina’s relationship deteriorates, we get to know the quirks of each of the other team members. As the oldest and least talented dancer on the team, Maeve (played by the always punchy Elise Ogden) resists the pressure faced by the others, while the only male on their team, Luke (Michael Galvan) seems to just be in it to hang out with Zuzu. Abraham portrays Connie with a deft mixture of innocence and indignation befitting the last of the horse girls.
In Ashlee (Katy Atkinson), we glimpse total power — intellectual, physical, sexual, and social. Atkinson’s is a refreshing flavor of brutishness that complements the other characters, while worldly-wise Sofia (Susan Myburgh) rounds out the dance team as the one whose older sister has told her about everything. Myburgh flickers effortlessly between taunting, imploring, witchery, longing, and ruthlessness at such a clip that when she freezes up in crisis, the change in tempo reverberates across the entire play.
The adults in this world are winnowed down to the absolute essentials. Giselle Marie Muñoz slides into the many interchangeable Moms who make this pre-career in dance function. Meanwhile, Dance Teacher Pat (Dennis Bailey) is the ultimate source of authority in the studio, unironically instilling in these young women that they can change the world with their Gandhi-themed dance routine.
There’s something lost, however, between signal and noise in “Dance Nation.” The production gradually accumulates smears of blood, fangs where teeth were, and red side lights as ferocity rises to the surface. When and why these effects are happening never exactly gels, though. Coupled with the script’s general disinterest in character arc resolution, the audience is left with an impression of viscousness manifest (period blood warpaint!) but lacks a statement.
In another kind of play about preteen dancers, we would probably trek the long journey through multiple tough competitions to get to Tampa, where we might even learn something about friendship. This story lets up in the middle of the interminable competition cycle, spurns any hero’s journey, and finds its climax in hellish, choral chanting. Barron celebrates the unruliness of ambition and ferocity in young women. Utterly delightful, the result is sometimes confusion and resignation that the strength of the performers can carry us over bumpier moments.
Blake Addyson’s scenic design does capture that tension neatly in a box set representing a shabby dance studio in western Pennsylvania over which hangs an impossibly big moon—the cyclic, feminine, and powerful looming just above the mundane, male-run studio.
It’s also worth noting that Barron takes special care to call this a “ghost play,” and in fairness, the moments that resonated most were those included in asides spoken apparently by these characters as adults or possibly after death. That layer of remove cuts through silliness, the cattiness, the rage. In their reflections, the characters let us in on the scars they still bear from the passion and the aimlessness of the dance team. “It’s like a memory from a past life or a future life or something,” as Zuzu says, but in this cliché machine designed to go haywire, it’s also an inroad toward emotional depth and an offer for the audience to recall the passion and aimlessness of pre-teen life.
“Dance Nation” runs through Sept. 15 at Rollins Studio Theater, Long Center. thelongcenter.org