Razor-sharp ‘Dance Nation’ at Steppenwolf has echoes of ‘Dance Moms,’ Hulu’s ‘Pen15’
Clare Barron’s Chicago-premiering play about the preteen girls (and one boy) in a competitive dance troupe offers the same kind of world depicted in the reality TV show, which was an inspiration.
In one of this year’s best new TV comedies, Hulu’s “Pen15,” co-creators and stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle — both in their early 30s — play versions of their 13-year-old selves navigating middle school in the early aughts.
Reopening wounds from that traumatic time on the cusp of adolescence, Konkle and Erskine spent their first season dodging the landmines of awakening sexuality, unfathomable social reordering and AOL Instant Messenger.
The show works so well because, as writers, Erskine and Konkle have the two-decades-removed perspective to see just how small the day-to-day disasters of middle school are in the long run. And, as actors, they have the experience and emotional scars to play every situation as the absolute calamity it felt like in the moment.
There’s a similar energy in “Dance Nation,” Clare Barron’s razor-sharp play about the preteen girls (and one boy) in a competitive dance troupe.
It’s the same kind of world depicted in the reality TV show “Dance Moms,” which Barron has cited as an inspiration.
Barron taps into many more heightening devices than even “Pen15” can: split-stage juxtapositions, thrilling direct-address monologues and reality-warping musical interludes among them.
When: Through Feb. 2
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Run time: 1 hour 55 minutes, no intermission
Barron’s version of the reality show’s hard-driving coach is known as Dance Teacher Pat (played by longtime Steppenwolf ensemble member Tim Hopper, deliciously deadpan). As Dance Teacher Pat (who is always referred to by his full title) informs his young charges, the competition season will afford them the opportunity to see a whole world beyond their hometown of Liverpool, Indiana. They’ll venture to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Akron, Ohio; and, if they keep winning, the grand finale, a competition known as the Boogie Down Grand Prix, in Tampa Bay, Florida, which they will travel to on an airplane.
The young dancers whisper a visceral reaction to the idea of air travel: “Taaaaaaampaaaaaa!”
Their response is even more reverent when Dance Teacher Pat invokes the name of his greatest success story, a dancer who was spotted by a talent agent in Tampa many years before and who went on to appear in the chorus of a Broadway show. Dance Teacher Pat merely gestures to her portrait on the studio wall, and his students sibilantly hiss her name like a spell: “Ssssssssssssabina! Sabina!”
Like “Pen15,” “Dance Nation” employs adult actors to play its adolescent characters. The cast includes Ariana Burks, a 2017 graduate of the Chicago High School for the Arts who’s already a veteran of local stages, and Ellen Maddow, an actor from New York City’s downtown theater scene who, like director and choreographer Lee Sunday Evans, is a holdover from the play’s 2018 premiere at NYC’s Playwrights Horizons.
Barron’s structure is episodic, a slideshow carousel of vignettes from Dance Teacher Pat’s studio floor to the competition stage to the dressing room, where the girls have frank discussions about sex and puberty that inadvertently reveal just how much they still don’t know.
If there’s a central conflict — and I wouldn’t necessarily say there is — it’s between best friends Amina (Karen Rodriguez), the troupe’s most natural talent, and Zuzu (Caroline Neff), who has the hunger for a dancer’s life but can’t match Amina’s skill. In one of the play’s most heartbreaking scenes, Zuzu tells her friend she might just have to stop talking to her about dance. Unsaid is that Zuzu recognizes their disparity, and it hurts too much to see the thing she wants so badly come so easily to Amina.
That’s emblematic of Barron’s empathetic point of view, which also makes room for time-traveling insights from members of the dance crew.
At the play’s midpoint, Ashlee (Shanésia Davis) gets a truly wild, delightfully vulgar monologue displaying her radical self-confidence. Ashlee rejects her reflex to say “no” when anyone correctly calls her smart or pretty or funny.
We get a flash forward from Connie (Adithi Chandrashekar), who gives us a vision of Connie and Ashlee reconnecting two decades on and revealing to each other the suicide attempts they both survived in the intervening years.
“Dance Nation” is incisive and uproarious. Just like middle school, it can feel both harrowing and ridiculous to revisit.
As my female friend whispered to me as we walked out of the theater, “I’m so glad I’m not 13 any more.”
Then she added, “We still have to deal with all of that stuff.”
Kris Vire is a freelance writer.