Unsure exactly what to expect of Mad Horse’s “Dance Nation,” a show about a middle-school dance team performed by adult actors? I was, too. But theatergoers will encounter a helpful sign at the door: Be advised that the show contains “profanity, gore and masturbation.” And so I entered the theater already profoundly relieved.
Because “Dance Nation,” a dramatic comedy by Clare Barron, is indeed about a gaggle of 13-year-old dancers dying to win a competition, and the next one, all the way to the Boogie Down Grand Prix in Tampa Bay. But “Dance Nation” is really about young girls’ ambivalent and sometimes raunchy, sometimes electrifying relationships with their power, bodies, ambition, friendship, sexuality and desires. It’s about how they navigate all this in a world that sexualizes and trivializes their bodies, minds and hearts.
Thus does the play open with Vanessa (Marie Stewart Harmon) splayed and bloody with a femur protruding from her thigh, being told by a guy on an intercom to get up and clear the stage. Thus does Dance Teacher Pat (Jared Mongeau, in yet another fabulously physicalized creepy role) tell his dancers that “The problems you are struggling with are not real problems” and slap the ass of star pupil Amina (Rumbidzai Mufuka, who deftly balances assurance and self-doubt) to admonish that she needs to “want it more” for them to win. Lisa Muller-Jones directs a disarming production of their story — often hilarious, sometimes ambiguous and frequently transcendent.
On a simple set of white columns and back wall, the dance studio mirror is implied rather than literal. As the dancers swan by, inspect or slam their heads against it, we’re encouraged to imagine what each sees in their own reflection.
And the collective, acted with marvelous energy and range, presents jewel-like facets of the dancers’ affinities and juxtapositions. Amina is poised and confident in counterpoint to sweet, anxious Zuzu (Noli French), while punk-ish Ashlee (Allison McCall) steps up the attitude. Lewd and jolly Sofia (Janice Gardner) fuels the group’s raunch, while level-headed Connie (Komal Redu) wants to play Gandhi in the new number, and Maeve (Savannah Irish), a lover of wolves, channels the primal. Finally, Luke (Robbie Harrison, superb in his watchful grace), is interestingly invisible yet wide open to the girls around him, soaking everything in.
Though scenes of the whole team together ground the characters’ rapport and purpose, the play moves forward largely via small vignettes, with a number of intimate, richly written monologues that the actors deliver with beautiful nuance.
In one early monologue, Zuzu (wonderfully reed-like sensitivity and candor in French’s hands) confides her desires and disappointments in what her body can achieve. While her dancing is good enough, she says, she wants to make people feel something, and quietly laments, “They don’t cry when they watch me dance” — not like they do when Amina dances.
In another early monologue, Ashlee brazenly takes on the confusing power dynamics a teenage girl must reckon with, reveling in her beauty, her “great ass” and “great tits,” then pivoting: “I am also really fucking smart,” and “I’m going to be the motherfucking king of your motherfucking world.” McCall makes a bravura performance of this triumphant potential, but then “What am I gonna do with all this power?” Ashlee asks — no longer lording, but asking in all sincerity.
The dancing itself presents an interesting challenge for a cast in which none of the actors are teenagers or (to my knowledge) dancers. In light of how intensely and at times surreally the characters worship dance, Kaylin Kerina’s choreography makes the dancing itself surprisingly minimalist and literal. The ensemble performs a session of pliés indifferently; the movements of their performance, hilariously and pointedly themed around Gandhi and performed in blue tuille and exotic face paint, are a bit halting, a bit funny and oddly underwhelming.
Far more emotionally resonant are the movements and tableaus that take place outside of formal dance routines, as dancers navigate how to move and hold space in the world and with each other: A team-spirit rally is nearly violent with jumping and bellowing. Everyone throws themselves on the floor with abandon when it’s time to dish. Maeve moves at Amina like a slow wolf after the star has betrayed Zuzu. And Zuzu is most at ease and joyful in her movements when she is not dancing, as when she describes to Luke her fantasy of losing her virginity.
This confers an interesting if sometimes confusing ambiguity about the role itself of dance in “Dance Nation.” In a play in which so much is incited or catalyzed by dance, perhaps it is really just a vehicle for these girls. Perhaps they are careening along on it through these fraught and giddy years, but are ultimately headed somewhere else.
Indeed, some of the play’s most affecting moments come in monologues told from the future, as the dancers look back and recall what happened later in their lives. Held in an intimate tableau with Ashlee, Connie (in fine, restrained work by Redu) describes a reunion in their twenties, bonding over learning that both had once considered self-harm.
Mad Horse’s “Dance Nation” delights, confounds, and moves us in its outrageous and lyrical look at girlhood, and it also reminds us of the stakes — the girl, after all, being mother to the woman.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.