An audacious work that is not for the wide-eyed dance mom or rosy-cheeked plie prodigy, Dance Nation dares to delve inside the heads of pre-pubescent girls and root out the anxieties, fears and anger that will accompany them into their teenage years and beyond into the battlefield of adulthood. Moxie Theatre is staging the West Coast premiere of Clare Barron’s play with all the bravery and stridency for which this female-championing company is known. In one act that really should have been written as two, there’s self-mutilation, a gruesome dance injury, a fiercely frank, sexually explosive monologue and even characters bearing fangs. This is not the ballet school down the street or “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Under the severe tutelage (and creepiness) of Dance Teacher Pat (Daren Scott), a team of pre-teen dancers rehearses to the points of pain for competitions that could ultimately culminate in the Boogie Down Grand Prix in swingin’ Tampa, Fla. But the practices and rehearsals are only pretexts for the personal pains, discoveries and revelations of the girls, all of whom (as written) are played by adult actors. This may explain why Barron’s script has the 13-year-olds or so making articulate observations and pronouncements far, far beyond their age. The girls are, in effect, already women in girls’ bodies who in navigating the terrors of their youth may be affirming the adults they will become.
The arc of the play isn’t really the quest for victory in Tampa. Instead, conflicts reside, fragmented, in the various girls, like Sofia (Sandra Ruiz), who experiences her first menstrual period. And Amina (Wendy Maples), who is the best of the dancers but for whom a first masturbatory orgasm is achingly elusive. Or Zuzu (Joy Yvonne Jones in an affecting performance), who faces with agony the reality that she will never be “good enough.”
Then there’s Ashlee (Andrea Agosto), whose full-throated avowal of powers sexual and otherwise is such an attention-grabber that the rest of the play never matches its intensity. Dance Nation, directed at Moxie by Jennifer Eve Thorn, plays on loss of innocence to a sometimes unsettling but sharply incisive extreme.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/4/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.