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The Secret Lives of Preteen Dancers Revealed in Dance Nation

Clare Barron's new play has its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons.

The cast performs a sailor-themed dance routine in the opening moments of Clare Barron's Dance Nation, directed and choreographed by Lee Sunday Evans, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Joan Marcus)

Deep in the heart of every preteen girl resides a bloodthirsty queen willing to crush the opposition. Clare Barron tells that story in her new play about the take-no-prisoners world of preteen competitive dance, Dance Nation, which is now receiving its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons. Handsomely produced and fiercely performed, it suffers from a lack of focus that makes the latter scenes drag like an all-day dance showcase.

It doesn't start that way for this dance team from Liverpool, Ohio. Dance Teacher Pat (Thomas Jay Ryan) makes it clear that the stakes couldn't be higher as many of the girls are bumping up against the ceiling of the "preteen" division. Nothing short of victory at the national competition in Tampa will secure immortality on the dance studio's wall of fame. He has something that he thinks could send them out in a blaze of glory: an acro-lyrical routine about the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi set to the Wynter Gordon anthem "World on Fire."

Thomas Jay Ryan (far right) plays Dance Teacher Pat in Clare Barron's Dance Nation.
(© Joan Marcus)

But who will play the title role? The one boy (Ikechukwu Ufomadu) and five other girls look to Connie (Purva Bedi), the only Indian-American on the team. But Zuzu (a magnetic Eboni Booth) really wants to play Gandhi, and no one should discount team star Amina (Dina Shihabi). Irritated that none of his dancers seem to know who Gandhi was, Dance Teacher Pat offers one pointedly selected preaudition bio note: "He went on a hunger strike and stopped eating."

All withering glances and icy ambition, Ryan bowls us over with his portrayal of this adult who is way too invested in adolescent competition (Dance Teacher Pat is hilarious not because he's over-the-top, but because he's all too real). Christina Rouner plays The Moms with far more warmth and unconditional support, leading to a tense standoff between considerations of self-esteem and talent. This is a fascinating idea that deserves more stage time. Unfortunately, Barron gives up this big fish for more manageable ones.

Lucy Taylor, Camila Canó-Flaviá, Purva Bedi, Ellen Maddow, Eboni Booth, Dina Shihabi, and Ikechukwu Ufomadu star in the world premiere of Dance Nation.
(© Joan Marcus)

Barron punctuates her story with a series of soliloquies that shatter any preconceived notion of innocence we might have about these girls. She knows what kind of sexually explicit megalomaniacal darkness lurks in the adolescent mind, and she illuminates it onstage. Playing a dancer named Ashlee, Lucy Taylor expertly delivers an extended monologue overflowing with expletives and grandeur as she celebrates her mastery of mathematics (and her future mastery of sex). Later in the play, the teammates psych themselves up by imagining all the ways they will violently humiliate the competition. "We're gonna bleed 'em from their stomachs and make them lick the blood from the stage," Ashlee says menacingly. It's locker room talk à la Cersei Lannister, which I guess is empowering.

You are not alone if you walk away from Dance Nation wondering if this quirky yet subtly on-point premise could have garnered more. Once the initial shock of vulgarity wears off, the soliloquies begin to sound the same. It also says something about the predictability of upper-middle-class life in America that the most recent two shows at Playwrights Horizons feature moments in which a character peers far into the future, delivering revelations that aren't really astounding, but banal.

Director Lee Sunday Evans works hard to keep us engaged with dynamic staging and authentically amateurish dance routines. In a refreshingly theatrical move, the dancers are played by actors of all different ages, adding resonance to performances that are all convincingly of preteen girls.

Purva Bedi plays Connie, Lucy Taylor plays Ashlee, and Camila Canó-Flaviá plays Sofia in Dance Nation.
(© Joan Marcus)

Arnulfo Maldonado's versatile set conjures a dance studio while also providing for side scenes. Ásta Bennie Hostetter's costumes bring the requisite Lycra and sequins, with a few ill-fitting garments to tell the story of young women who still haven't fully discovered what looks good on them. Barbara Samuels effectively lights a play that is often told in split screen, while Brandon Wolcott bring us into the competition venue with heart-pounding sound design.

Barron has a thrilling disregard for maintaining realism, joyously employing elements of horror, confessional solo performance, and dance. Frustratingly, so many of these elements come as asides, parentheses that interrupt the spine of her story until we lose the plot and no longer care. If she could find a way to use her multigenre voice in a way that complements her play, she would have something extraordinary. At one hour and 45 minutes, Dance Nation is not painful to sit through, but it won't be taking up any space in the trophy case.