At the Steppenwolf (Upstairs) Theatre by Dan Zeff
Chicago – In “Dance Nation” at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, playwright Clare Barron examines the highs and lows of a mostly female group of 12-13 year old dancers trying to compete their way to a national championship. But her show is really about navigating their way through the slings and arrows of life on the cusp of their teenage years. The subject is familiar but Barron’s approach is almost ostentatiously unconventional, and therein resides the problem with this ambitious but flawed comedy drama.
“Dance Nation” introduces the audience to a group of eight young dancers, one of whom suffers a grisly injury in the opening scene and is dragged offstage, never to appear again. That leaves the company with six females and one male, supervised by Dance Teacher Pat, the group’s domineering coach, supplemented by several stage mothers, all played by a single actress. We learn early on that the youngsters are competing in a series of three dance contests that hopefully will lead to qualification at a national championship in Tampa, Florida. But the show has no coherent linear storyline, instead presenting in nearly two nonstop hours a collage of monologues, group conversations, and dance numbers.
It’s unlikely that any group of 12-13 year old performers could meet the very adult demands of Barron’s writing. The playwright solves the difficulty with the deliberate and unorthodox casting of adult actors who make no effort to disguise their ages, ranging from what looks like their mid 20’s all the way up to a middle aged man playing the one male dancer and an actress in her early 70’s. Barron further stretches the realism of the dance group by deliberately employing performers of assorted ethnicities and body types. Thus Amina, the star dancer in the group, is played by an actress (Karen Rodriguez) whose heavy build is a long way from the conventional physical look of a dancer.
The collective company is presented as championship caliber, at least in their age group, but what we see on stage is a catch-as-catch-can display of arm flailing, prancing about, and what appears to be improvisational modern dance garnished with a touch of classical ballet. Director Lee Sunday Evans is also the choreographer and her dances, at least on the Steppenwolf stage, make curious, sometimes confusing hoofing.
The dance competition is the narrative hook, but the play is really about investigating the turbulence of female life as the characters enter their teenage years. The girls are fascinated and terrorized by sex, the physical changes in their bodies (showed and discussed graphically indeed), their ambitious and fears, their hopes and yearnings, their secrets, and their friendships and rivalries. As a further shift in viewpoint, characters morph from the present day to adults reflecting back on their anxieties confusions of their tweeny years.
I cannot challenge Barron’s psychologically heightened examination of female life entering the teenage years. I am not a female and my age is several decades older that the lives spread out before me, but the playwright obviously has been there and done that so her take on the 12-13 era in a girl’s life can be considered authentic. It may seem melodramatic and overwrought, but considering what we read about girls and their eating disorders, drugs, flesh cuttings, and suicide, the stresses of living from day to day can exert fearful pressures on vulnerable psyches.
The problem I have with “Dance Nation” is not the validity of the issues it raises about budding girlhood, but the scattergun nature of the action. It takes a while for the audience to recognize that the chronology moves back and forth from the characters in their youth to adults reflecting on their younger selves many years after the fact. The action sifts from dance to realistic locker room conversations to extended speeches spoken directly to the audience to fantasy sequences. Many of the bits could qualify as showcase pieces for actresses auditioning for a role, but the fragmentary nature of the script inhibits the audience’s emotional stake in the show.
A highlight of the evening is a blistering and obscenity-soaked monologue by Ashlee (Shanesia Davis) declaring how she will some day bring the outside world to its knees before her. It’s a stunning piece but its R-rated nature stretches our acceptance that such raw and explosive words are being hurled by a 13-year old girl.
For this production, the audience is divided into two segments facing each other, instead of a proscenium arrangement that might have given the staging a tighter look. Right now, “Dance Nation” (a curious and perhaps pretentious title) is a collection of moments, many effectively dramatic and many legitimately humorous—but a kaleidoscope that doesn’t gathering into a convincing whole.
The performances certainly serve the play well. Caroline Neff, who never disappoints, is outstanding as Zuzu, anointed by Dance Teacher Patrick to be a star of the group, a responsibility Zuzu finds too overwhelming. Tim Hopper gives a convincing portrait of the teacher who tyrannizes over his youngsters, a tin god who won’t make much of a mark in the adult world. The excellent ensemble is rounded out by Ariana Burks, Adithi Chandrashekar, Audrey Francis, Torrey Hanson, and Ellen Maddow.
The major designer credits go to Arnulfo Maldonado (scenic design), Christine Pascual (costume design), Heather Gilbert (lighting design), and Milhail Fiksel (sound design).
Barron’s 2018 play was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for drama, and her writing skills are undeniable. But issues of focus undercut the show. Not enough emotional dots are connected as the individual scenes flow by. The device of casting roles outside the chronological box is interesting but I’m not sure it is all that effective. What could have been a fascinating and instructive group portrait actually seems like a loose collection of individual snapshots. A consumer warning to adults who wonder if their 13-year old girls are mature enough to find this portrait of their peers a useful dramatic experience. Be aware that there are strong words and images in “Dance Nation” that had even adult viewers at my performance gasping.
‘Dance Nation’ gets a rating of.
“Dance Nation” runs through February 2 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $94. Call (312) 335-1850 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.