Female empowerment and adolescent awkwardness join forces in Washington Ensemble Theatre’s latest, fueled by standout choreography and a star-dusted cast. Dance Nation runs through February 3.
A megawatt-cheerful, innuendo-laden tap dance opens Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, a jolt of sunshine that gave me a good feeling about the play to come. Then, there’s a gruesome leg injury — and I got really excited.
Barron’s audacious exploration of the elation and horror of adolescence is a high-wire act of tonal dissonance, and the queasy humor of that bloody beginning establishes the ground rules early.
With its tightly focused examination of a competitive group of (mostly) girls, Barron’s play inevitably recalls Sarah DeLappe’s propulsive soccer drama The Wolves, also a Pulitzer finalist. But Barron, who’s from Wenatchee, has written a play that tiptoes much closer to the surreal, suddenly unearthing its characters’ hopes and anxieties the way a dream — or a nightmare — might. That feeling is amplified by a cast of adults, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s, playing a group of middle schoolers. One can see the way those weirdly formative moments from childhood adhere themselves to the psyche long into maturity.
Washington Ensemble Theatre’s production is directed with irresistible energy by Bobbin Ramsey and Alyza DelPan-Monley, whose background as a choreographer is crucial to the show’s success. DelPan-Monley, who created the choreography in collaboration with the cast, always brings something unexpected to a show’s movement, and in Dance Nation, it’s a shouldn’t-work-but-does combination of the awkward and the sublime.
The plot, such as it is, is stock sports drama: Team has to overcome obstacles to achieve its dream of reaching nationals in Florida (glamorous regional stops along the way include Akron). Thankfully, Barron doesn’t feel an ounce of obligation to narrative-centered storytelling.
There’s a nominally central conflict: Passionate but flawed dancer Zuzu (Rheanna Atendido) has to overcome her self-doubt and the competition from consensus team superstar Amina (Sofía Raquel Sánchez) to perform a solo that will propel her team to victory.
Her raw yearning is thrown into relief by the fact that the solo is in character as “Gandhi’s spirit” in an amusingly misguided bit of self-seriousness devised by Dance Teacher Pat (Nik Doner), the domineering, possibly abusive, small-town Ohio dance studio instructor. Dance Teacher Pat isn’t a villain or a foil; he’s simply part of the confusing tapestry of expectations and demands that underpin adolescence.
“I hope I get it,” says Ashlee (a perfectly acerbic Erin Bednarz) directly to the audience as auditions begin, and Barron’s series of confessional monologues are certainly indebted to A Chorus Line. But these monologues are the really internal ones — the kinds of things you would never say aloud to anyone else, at least not past the age of 13.
In one of the show’s most razor-sharp soliloquies, Bednarz’s Ashlee grapples with her burgeoning sexuality, before choosing to harness it as something more powerful than anyone could possibly imagine. Naturally, changing bodies are a major theme here, but every conversation about masturbation or menstruation or losing one’s virginity, no matter how naïve, is treated with maximum empathy.
Because of its tone, one might be tempted to label Barron’s play a satire. But no matter how outsized its characters’ primal urges become — one scene sees them transformed into bloodsucking vampires — Barron never condescends to them. And in championing female empowerment, she again shows a flair for fusing archness and sincerity: Characters join together in a chant about their pussies that’s both disarmingly funny and genuinely inspirational.
WET’s ensemble is strong across the board. Maggie L. Rogers, who’s about to become the company’s new artistic director, nails every sneakily funny line reading. Hannah Victoria Franklin, who stars as all the moms, hits about every archetype, hectoring and pleading and encouraging hilariously. As the cast’s eldest member, Marty Mukhalian brings extra poignancy to her character’s insecurities. Mikey Flores and Varsha Raghavan round out the troupe as characters struggling not to feel like outsiders.
But everyone feels like an outsider at 13 — estranged from their own bodies and paralyzed by others’ expectations that they don’t fully comprehend. Barron’s play reminds us that those feelings may have been submerged since then, but they’re still in there.
Dance Nation runs through 2/3 at 12th Avenue Arts on Capitol Hill. Tickets $25, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall, with one nearby gender-neutral, single-stall restroom available by key code. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Dusty Somers is a lifelong Seattleite whose love of the arts has resulted in a distressingly large physical media collection. Right about now, he’s probably watching a movie, seeing a play or listening to a record. He has covered theatre for City Arts, The Seattle Times, and NWTheatre.