The curtain never rises on Clare Barron's ferocious, Pulitzer-finalist play Dance Nation. The lights come on and they are simply there, so many of them: sailors, tapping their hearts out with militant glee, their eyes piercing the space like periscopes looking farther into a landscape than their age or experience would seem to allow and undaunted by whatever lies in the darkness ahead. The unison is heartstopping, almost terrifying. They have trained long for this moment, and whether they succeed or fail, their courage will be remembered. But they are not seamen or soldiers. They are 13-year-old girls (mostly) on the Liverpool Dance Works team (that's Liverpool, Ohio), and they are (sometimes) winners. One moment of silence for the fallen, here named Vanessa (Audrey Francis, who also plays all the moms), whom we will never see again.
If you have ever watched an episode of Dance Moms, the TV show that inspired this play, you know that competition dance is nothing pretty. It's cutthroat, nasty, and kind of absurd, with (mostly) girls serving as the pawns of the egos of their mothers and coaches. In other words, it is very much like the military or sports (aka military pageantry for casual civilian consumption), only with more operatic soliloquies to break up the monotony of training in between the brief melees that determine whether or not your team goes to Nationals (this year in Tampa, Florida!).
Dance Nation captures the essence of this milieu without succumbing to a rehash of what's best not seen on the small screen. Instead, it focuses on the dynamics of a group of girls on the verge of blossoming, particularly that between talented dancer Amina (Karen Rodriguez) and her best friend Zuzu (Caroline Neff), as their coach, Dance Teacher Pat (Tim Hopper) develops a new routine called "World on Fire," to celebrate the legacy of Gandhi and annihilate their opponents. In this "acro-lyrical" number, there are citizens, and there is Gandhi. This is the true and sad way of things—there can be only one star. ("I hope we're both just Gandhi," says Zuzu after the audition. "Oh my God!" says Amina. "That would be perfect!") If you foresee an imperfect time ahead for these otherwise loving and supportive friends, you would be correct. Every breath you take, another person in the world dies, Dance Teacher Pat reminds the team. This dance is for them.
Key to the experience of Dance Nation are the guidelines Barron indicates for casting. As diverse as possible in age and all other respects, on the one hand. On the other, brutally selective against any ability to dance: "The dances should take up time and space and be fully and gorgeously embodied performative events, even if the actors possess no real dance talent. (In fact, better if the actors possess no real dance talent)," she writes. The Steppenwolf production, directed and choreographed by Lee Sunday Evans, is adherent in both regards. This makes for the most flagrantly graceless dancing you have ever paid money to see. And yet there is method to this madness, which allows us to see the authenticity and vulnerability of adolescence, and, rather beautifully, the continued relevance of these moments of shame, solidarity, and self-assertion in our adult lives.
Ellen Maddow as Maeve, the oldest member of the cast, still has the fragility of a teen scolded for forgetting her hair clips, still has the ambition to be an astrophysicist, and still contains the memory of what it is to fly. Ashlee (Shanésia Davis) roars with the savage energy of a phenomenal woman under the sheen of sweat of a girl not sure whether she's allowed to find herself beautiful. And the drama that occurs when Zuzu gets cast as the soloist over her more gifted friend is only the beginning of the pain of an adult world of ambition and achievement.
Minimalist scenic elements designed by Arnulfo Maldonado combine with the recurrent character of a mother who hovers and vanishes to complete the picture of the claustrophobia of youth, where every place you go looks approximately like all the other places you have been with slightly different lighting. And yet there is wonder in the details—the cratered and shadowed paper moon that sways and bulges onstage, the Astroturf hillside that rolls onstage like a magic carpet when a girl needs to escape, the way everyone touches Connie's lucky horse before they step onstage. Girls grow, shaped as much by the wilderness of each other as by the adults that guard and hem them in. v