Review: Dance Nation at Rec Room Arts

Turns out there’s only so many times you can get the word “pussy” yelled at you from the stage before you start losing interest.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the word. Especially not when it’s coming out of the mouths of 13-year-old girls grappling with their pre-femininity and what it means to live in a space where ambition, self-esteem and anxiety battle daily in your psyche. evolving.

The trouble with ad nauseam pussy uttering and a myriad of pre-teen female sexual curiosities in Clare Barron, dance nation (directed by Sophia Watt) is that this precious little one feels fresh. Or shocking. Or revealing.

For those of us old enough to remember, it’s like Judy Blume with dirtier words. For you youngsters, you’ve seen and heard all of this before in movies, TV shows or books claiming to be pissed off…..masturbation, first periods, looking at your genitals for the first time, fantasies of losing your virginity, and wondering what a penis should look like. Yawn and pass the hot sauce.

That Barron frames his examination in the world of competitive dance should offer some unique angles.

The play (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) centers on a dance troupe based in Liverpool, Ohio. A group of 13-year-old girls (and one boy) destined to be played by adults and portrayed in the script (and wonderfully in production) by actors of different ages, races, and body types.

Led by their perfectionist and unempathetic coach, Dance Teacher Pat (Greg Cote), the girls learn a new routine (based on Gandhi, perhaps a fun commentary on the sometimes forced meaning of modern dance) that they hope will will take them all the way to Nationals.

However, even the pressure cooker of who will take the lead and who will mess things up seems limp. If you expect Sarah DeLappe’s athletic energy, Wolves, a thrilling play about a teenage girl soccer team, you’re out of luck. Although the cast does a few dances to several of the production’s top 10 pop songs, that’s not meant to be the wow factor.

The show also lacks the tension buildup and climax of Netflix’s docu-drama. Applaudabout how a team comes together to compete in a high-stakes national competition.

Instead, what we get are monologues, flashbacks, and flashforwards of young women’s lives superimposed on a competition that most girls don’t care much about. It’s just something they do for now. For the best or for the worst.

It’s in those quieter moments when the cast isn’t dancing or shouting female vocals that Dance Nation has something special to offer. Where Barron lifts the hood on his characters and lets us see the inner workings. It’s also a great showcase for this uniformly formidable cast.

There’s Amina (Sophia Mobbs), the troupe’s true talent/competitor who shows us that being the best is often a lonely, hard place to be. Her best friend Zuzu (Callina Anderson), an underage dancer trying to achieve her mother’s lost fame/compensate for her health, secretly harbors fantasies of a life where she can enchant her path to happiness. Sophia (Lisa Fairchild), a girl who knows everything, but knows nothing. Connie (Anjana Menon), another child who plays with figurines, is unprepared for the dark future that awaits her. Metaphysics Maeve (Molly Wetzel stepping into the role at the last minute and doing a flawless job) seems to have youthful powers that are trampled on as maturity sets in. And the only boy, Luke (Avery Vonn Kenyatta), in love with Zuzu and lacks time with his mother.

But for true originality and the thrill of fresh teenage rage against the machine, there’s only one monologue that transcends the series’ shortcomings.

What if you were “perfect”? What if your body hits and your face is considered gorgeous and you have a brain on top of that? A smarter brain than almost anyone you meet? Should you recognize the praise you receive? Say, yeah, I’m the shit? Tell those who think you’re a hot pack to go to hell because you’re more than a pretty face?

These are the fantasies that Ashlee (Shannon Uphold) exhibits in her aggressive monologue about world domination. All bravado and bravado, in the end, it’s a young woman trying on a costume. Trying to come to terms with the power she has. Power, she realizes, is both hard-won and merely genetic.

It is this juxtaposition of idealism and insecurity where Barron finally finds a new common thread. When you have everything so young, where do you go? How do you maintain the high? We get flashes of the pressure from Ashlee’s hunched position later in the play, showing that even perfection, the thing young women are told to strive for, is a precarious notion that doesn’t necessarily give reward.

Ultimately and sadly, a few clever monologues and great performances can’t make up for the novelty or excitement that dance nation lack.

In perhaps one of the weirdest pre-show conversations I’ve ever had, I ran into a co-worker who confessed that knowing nothing about the show, they thought there was an element zombie or vampire in the room.

I laughed at the time, but now that I think about it, maybe the undead or eternally living woman was exactly what dance nation needed to shake the pre-teen trope tree. Would long moments of screaming about their pussy ring deeper if they came from those who walk in darkness?

It’s exaggerated. A large. But damn it, I wanted to like this show so badly that I would try just about anything. I should have, I would have, I could have, as children say.

Dance Nation continues through February 5 at the Rec Room Arts, 100 Jackson. For more information, visit recroomarts.org. $10-$50.

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