Sitting down to watch Dance Nation at the Wilma Theater, I didn’t know that two hours later I would have related so intimately and intensely to a dance troupe in Liverpool, Ohio. The play is about a competitive dance troupe of teenage girls—played by women of all ages—vying for a national trophy. There is a depth, complexity, and hilarity that come with adult actors portraying the characters.
Ambition and gender
The play begins with a group dance number by the troupe of pre-teen girls (and one boy!). We then follow the characters through their dance practices with an authoritarian and unyielding dance coach. Star dancer Amina (Campbell O’Hare) often gets the dance solos because of her skill and drive. The rest of the team is constantly in Amina’s shadow until Zuzu (Brett Ashley Robinson) nabs a dance solo. When the pressure of competition turns the tables, everyone has to deal with the consequences.
Playwright Clare Barron says she wanted to “explore ambition and how that intersects with gender.” The dancers all react differently to competition and constant criticism from their mothers and dance coach.
There are delightful character monologues throughout the play, letting us dive into the inner thoughts of these characters, touching on self-esteem, desire, and a fruitful imagination. In my favorite monologue, one of the girls embraces her beauty and brain instead of humble denials of her good qualities. It was empowering to see this girl realize her own strength and ask herself “what am I going to do with all this power?”
Who they are, and who they want to be
Director Margot Bordelon brilliantly delivers graphic language and actions in the play, to audience applause. One of the girls discovers her first period right before a major competition. She initially feels embarrassment and shame, and doubts she can continue with blood on her clothes. The other girls rally around her, to a striking result.
The characters dance between reality, fantasy, and present and future perspectives. The audience can see how we carry what happens to us when we’re thirteen through the rest of our lives. Every small and big moment in the play shows the characters in the process of self-discovery: their fears, dreams, and ultimately who they are and who they want to be.
Raw, bold, and original
The play has great patience, with each scene carrying the weight of drama and comedy. The humor comes not only in the dialogue, but in hilarious physicality, skillfully weaving a sometimes-dark storyline through the seemingly trivial lens of a teenager. These dancers’ innocence and humanity make them charismatic and relatable.
Dance Nation is a raw, bold, and original piece that accurately portrays the emotional experience of what it is to be a teenage girl. With age, I feel as if I’ve lost some of my endless curiosity about the world, my body, and myself. Barron wrote a fierce, tender, and wildly feminist comedy that transported me to my troubled teen years and all the inner strength that got me through it. Dance Nation is a play with humor and heart, reminding all of us to keep discovering new parts of ourselves and to find power in our discoveries.
What, When, Where
Dance Nation. By Clare Barron, directed by Margot Bordelon. Through November 10, 2019, at The Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 546-7824 or wilmatheater.org.
The Wilma Theater is an ADA-compliant venue.