An authentic look at growing up a girl
★★★★½ - Delicious
Growing up a girl can be a traumatic experience for some. The LAB LV gave a poignant, brutally honest presentation of Claire Barron’s 2018 dark comedy “Dance Nation” recently at The Playhouse. About the trials and tribulations of a tween competitive dance team, anyone who grew up taking dance—or participated in any group activity for that matter—might appreciate the authenticity of the piece.
Barron captures so much about the way pre-adolescent girls (and boys) talk—like the silly, stream-of-consciousness things they say and the mind-boggling things they believe—in her funny dialogue, which is often about body parts and naively sexual in nature. She examines not only how girls cope with their changing bodies and navigate relationships during such a formative period of life, but also how the cutthroat nature of dance—with its emphasis on talent and winning over having fun—can have a critical role in shaping their personalities.
A sort of memory play, Barron wrote the characters so the age of the performers doesn’t matter so much, so we see not only the child but also glimpses of the woman or man they hope to become. And while the choreographed dances are a part of the text, the characters aren’t always the best dancers, and the actors dance as the characters would.
Director Kate St-Pierre has assembled an excellent ensemble cast with stamina and focus for the high-energy show. Performance experience varies a bit but each actor has their moment to shine in well-modulated scenes and monologues and the emphasis on character development pays off. Having the audience on three sides allows intimacy, though sometimes visibility is obscured since actors sit on the floor a lot.
The good stuff happens when dancers sit on the floor and chat before and after class while they rummage through bags, do their hair, and get dressed. They give each other advice about their changing bodies and the boys they like, build each other up and tear each other down. They want to dance more than anything in the world, and they all want the leading part.
The dance team is taking their “Gandhi Dance” (choreographed by Anastasia Weiss) to Nationals, and Amina has the title part. Ruliko Cronin gives an earnest, layered performance of Amina, the girl who has the most talent, gets the best roles, and knows she’s better than everyone else. She feels humble enough about her abilities to let others have the spotlight, but only to a degree. Her competitive edge and ambition always wins out. As Amina’s best friend Zuzu, Shambrion Treadwell gives us the vulnerable facets of a sensitive girl who wants so badly to dance, but is overlooked because she lacks confidence and natural talent. When she finally gets the chance to take center stage as the Spirit of Gandhi, she blows it in a form of subconscious self-sabotage.
Destiny Nelson embodies the role of Ashlee, and fully embraces her epic, kick-ass monologue (neatly lit by the glow of her castmates’ cell phones) that is by turns hilarious and surprising, a sort of female power anthem to boost the confidence of both her present and future self. Gigi Guizado gives a sweet, people-pleasing Maeve who always stands with her feet in first position as if ready to take on any challenge, while Daniela Munafo perfects the eye roll with her outspoken, uninhibited Sofia. And Aisha Kasmir as Connie and Ja’Saun Crawford as Luke are fine in less prominent parts.
Kelly Hawes plays multiple roles, and is especially powerful as Zuzu’s strong, cancer-stricken Mom in a scene with Darren Pitura as Dance Teacher Pat. Dressed in all black as any self-respecting artist would be, Pitura nails the win-at-all-costs Teacher with a funny, deadpan toughness that could rival any football coach. His doomsday motivational speech to the dancers is masterful in build and comic impact, and also downright chilling. Yet he shows glimpses of regret and also a realization of his influence on his students’ self-esteem.
The show also pokes fun at the cheesiness of dance teams and the sexualization of prepubescent dancers. Every recital has a “Sailor Dance,” choreographed here by Weiss, and Caine Keenan’s “Face Dance” features cool movement spotlit from the shoulders up. “Spider Pussy Dance,” choreographed by Weiss, St-Pierre, and the ensemble, is like a metaphor for the precocious beasts that adolescent girls can be. The spare set design by Benjamin Loewy works well as a dance studio, Dave Clark nicely lights the show in aspects of both dance and drama, and Dustin Shaffer adds a whimsical note to the costumes with the multicolored team jackets.
LAB LV’s “Dance Nation” is an authentic look at the traumas of growing up a girl.