Practically nobody wants to relive their pre-teen and early teen years, especially girls. It is a time when young females are about to blossom into womanhood, carrying with them all the insecurities and misunderstandings of childhood. In short, it's a time of life that vaguely resembles a Hieronymus Bosch painting, full of earthly delights and gruesome fears, all smushed together so confusingly it's hard to tell one from the other.
That is the cultural and personal neighborhood that playwright Clare Barron investigates in Dance Nation, now at Dobama Theatre. And her canvas for this portrait of prepubescent female joy and misery is the world of dance competitions for 12- to 13-year-old girls. It is a very particular hellscape and the same territory that has been well trod by the TV show Dance Moms.
Like that reality show, in this play there are a couple of overbearing stage moms and a domineering jackass dance coach named Pat (played respectively by Carolyn Demanelis and Tom Woodward). But the focus is on this troupe of seven girls and one boy, who are working on their dance moves in a studio in Liverpool, Ohio, hoping they can compete their way to the Nationals in Tampa, Florida.
The piece they are rehearsing is "acro-lyrical" dance which, for the uninitiated, is a combination of traditional hoofing and acrobatics. And as if that isn't enough of a stretch for these kids, the dance is a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, which is simultaneously pathetic and hilarious. But the teens are completely serious about this, of course, and immediately there are tensions around which girl might nab that starring role.
Turns out, Coach Pat splits the choice part of Gandhi, with one girl playing Gandhi himself and another the "spirit of Gandhi." That decision triggers plenty of angst as the dancers battle their interior demons and each other for a share of the spotlight.
In the script, the playwright specifies that the eight teens should be played mostly by adults who have no particular dancing skills. One reason for using adults is that the script is loaded with graphic visuals and candid references to bodily functions, sexual fantasies and body parts (did I mention the "Perfect Pussy" group rant?) that inhabit young minds. There's some rough, even feral, stuff in here and while teen actors could probably handle it, it's clear some members of the audience might not.
As far as the lack of dancing skills, the idea is to capture that awkward stage of physicality that goes a long way to inform how middle-school girls experience the world and their own emerging autonomy.
In this production, directed with admirable unfussiness by Shannon Sindelar, there are moments that dazzle you with their brilliance. It is played out on Cameron Caley Michalak's equally unfussy scenic design, utilizing a series of ballet barres at different heights to provide perches for the actors.
But as the almost two-hour-long one-act proceeds, and as we watch the teens both enact moments in real time and then reflect on those moments as adults, the structure of the play devolves into mild confusion. Since many of the scenes are crafted to work as discrete elements, this undercuts the emotional impact of the work as a whole.
But oh my, some of those separate elements are certainly galvanizing. In this hoofing group there is one acknowledged star, Amina (Corlesia Smith), who has a level of dancing polish that the others can't approach. Her primary competitor is Zuzu (Delee Cooper), who is beset by her interfering mother on one hand and her own crippling lack of confidence on the other.
Smith and Cooper both move well, almost too well for the purposes of this play. While Smith brings a nicely conflicted sense to the always successful Amina ("Please let me lose!" she cries at one point), Cooper struggles a bit to keep her narrative sections engaging and cohesive.
One of the most dazzling passages in the production is when Mariama Whyte as Ashlee launches a monologue that is so beautifully fragmented it stands alone as a testament of teenage girlhood. Ranging from rhapsodizing about her "epic ass" and great tits to a rant about how students should stop complaining about how hard math is ("It's easy, just study!"), Whyte nearly brings down the house.
Playing counterpoint to that intensity is Anne McEvoy as goofy, out-of-step Maeve. While McEvoy is a couple decades (ahem) removed from being a 13-year-old, she perfectly embodies that youthful angst, running to fetch a hair clip she forgot while Coach Pat taps his foot impatiently. And her recollection of the magical feeling she once had of being able to "fly" is lovely. Calista Zajac, who is closest in age to the characters in this show, is also excellent as Sofia, dealing with her character's unfortunately-timed onset of menstruation. Avani Hamilton as Connie and Wesley Allen as Luke round out the hard-working cast.
Even given the loose assemblage of scenes and time lines, which can be off-putting, the heart of the piece is intact. The girls dance. They share their passions while sharing girlish rumors and confidences. They soar and they hurt. And that's the early teen life we experience with them for a couple hours. Yeah, you'll remember.
Christine Howey, former stage actor and director, is executive director of Literary Cleveland.