The trials and tribulations of adolescence have longed served as fodder for adult comedy--having now (presumably) passed that threshold, it’s amusing to look back and remember how tragic losing that spelling bee trophy was. But there’s so much more to it than pimples and puberty, and Clare Barron’s Pulitzer Prize Finalist Dance Nation, now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre, understands and celebrates that. From its hilariously dark opening number to its reverberating conclusion, Barron’s exploration of the invincibility and vulnerability of a pre-teen dance troupe serves as a poignant reminder of how the past shapes the present.
Though the play unfolds almost in a series of vignettes, the main path follows a dance troupe on their march toward the ultimate competition, the Boogie Down Grand Prix in Tampa Bay, Florida. The first step toward victory, Dance Teacher Pat (Tim Hopper), explains, is to determine who will execute the solo role in their new routine, an acro-lyrical number about Gandhi’s life. Tensions within the troupe soar, particularly between best friends Amina (Karen Rodriguez) and Zuzu (Caroline Neff), who struggle to support each other while vying for the top spot.
Barron’s set-up revels in how deeply and, from an adult’s perspective, absurdly the quest to make it to the Boogie Down Grand Prix dictates the young performers’ lives, but it also spends time reminding us how influential these little moments and decisions can be along their path to adulthood. Several characters have monologues where they traverse time and reflect years later on their childhood selves. Others express feelings like dogged self-confidence (the kind exclusive to young people) and fear and anxiety around sexuality, and it’s insights like these that elevate Barron’s comedy past a standard adolescent romp into something more discerning.
Another huge part of the show’s success is director Lee Sunday Evans’ and the actors’ approach to the script and dance numbers, which steadfastly avoids overly saccharine performances or choreography. The play simply wouldn’t work if the diverse collective tried to mimic young children--instead, they embody their determination and earnestness without acting cutesy. Neff, a Steppenwolf ensemble member who always impresses, finds the right balance as Zuzu, a young girl grappling with a misalignment between her dreams and reality.
Dance Nation is not the easy adolescent comedy that some audiences would be more comfortable with. Yet by leaning into the discomfort, Barron transports us back into that period of in-between and encourages us to reflect on how we became who we are today. Barron said that in writing the play, she hoped “that an audience will remember things about their 13-year-old selves that they had forgotten [....]” Through its characters laughter, pain, and passion, Dance Nation undoubtedly achieves that goal. (Emily Schmidt)
Dance Nation continues at Steppenwolf Theatre through Feb 2. Info here.
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