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A CurtainUp Review
Dance Nation
This is bigger than one dance, Amina. You girls are building your legacy. Who do you trust with that legacy? Anyone? Or the strongest dancer on the team? .— Dance Teacher Pat
dance nation
Eboni Booth, Dina Shihabi, Purva Bedi, Lucy Taylor (kneeling), Ikechukwu Ufomadu, Ellen Maddow & Camila Cano-Flavia (Photo, Joan Marcus)
No play on the New York boards is fiercer or more original than Clare Barron's Dance Nation, a satire and group portrait which just opened at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons. A satire, it's a portrait of a competitive girls dance team from Ohio who are dead set on rising to the top of the dance world.

On the surface Dance Nation is a story about six tweenaged dancers (ages 11 to 14) who are going through the crucible of a national dance competition. Most of the action, takes place in a dance studio under the watchful eye of dance teacher Pat, who never lets them forget that the "Nationals" at Tampa Bay is only a month away.

But Dance Nation is a good deal more than it seems at first blush, largely because Barron dares to use nonconventional casting for these very young characters. While it's not uncommon to have actors in their 20s play adolescents, Barron casts women whose age is anywhere from under 30 to 60 plus. No question it adds a surreal touch to Dance Nation, which the playwright, in a note in her script , describes as a "ghost play."

Whether you buy into the authorial casting conceit or not, it does make it easier to follow the intent: to allow us to "see" not only the 13 year-old characters at age 13 but as the women they later become.

This play isn't for the weak-stomached since the story telling includes a lot of blood and guts in the play. Case in point: After the opening Sailor Dance routine, you see the dancer Vanessa crumpled on the stage with her femur bone sticking through the skin. It's a grisly sight, even if the fake blood on her thigh has a plastic look to it.

Does it sound like a strange way to begin a play about competitive dancing? Not really since it immediately underscores the reality that Injuries can happen to any dancer in a blink and sideline one from dancing — and one's dream.

Beyond the blood and gore,however, there are tender moments. Perhaps the most affecting comes when we listen to Zuzu, the team's second-best dancer, describe how she once created a dance for her mother who had cancer, in hopes of curing her. ("My mom asked me to dance for her cancer. She saw a documentary about this woman who did a dance and it cured her cancer . . . "). I don't want to be a spoiler, but I can't resist sharing that Zuzu's monologue becomes an unforgettable reflection on the power and limitations of dance as well as on artistic talent itself.

Ideas and emotions often blur as these tweens try to make sense of their world. The subjects they discuss include the SAT's (and how to nail the Math section), future careers, masturbation, menstruation, virginity (and the anxieties linked to it)— and, of course, dance with a capital "D."

The immensely likable male dancer Luke (Ikechukwu Ufomadu), who occasionally joins in on the girls' discussions, is a vital presence in the play. Although he often is physically set apart from the girls, whenever he joins the female collective, he brings his honest male viewpoint to the table. And it always carries the ring of truth.

There's much to enjoy in the ensemble acting. The always-amazing Thomas Jay Ryan, as Dance Teacher Pat, keeps his fledgling dancers on their toes in every sense of the word. Dina Shihabi, as the star dancer Amina, brings fervor and bite to her role. Eboni Booth, as second-best dancer Zuzu, summons a similar intensity but also projects the pain of forever living in Amina's shadow. And a special shout out to Ellen Maddow's Maeve whose fantasy about flight is both funny and transcendent.

Arnulfo Maldonado's plain set and Barbara Samuels' flourescent lighting are perfect for this basically no-frills production.In the end Dance Nation escapes feeling like already explored territory. This is theater given a fresh edge and feeling. For the most part it works well enough to make it worth seeing—but preferably NOT by anyone as young as its characters.

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Dance Nation by Clare Barron
Cast: Purva Bedi (Connie), Eboni Booth (Zuzu), Camila Cano-Flavia (Sofia), Ellen Maddow (Maeve), Christina Rouner (Vanessa / The Mom(s)), Thomas Jay Ryan (Dance Teacher Pat), Dina Shihabi (Amina), Lucy Taylor (Ashlee), Ikechukwu Ufomadu (Luke)
Sets: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costumes: Asta Bennie Hostetter
Sound: Brandon Wolcott
Lighting: Barbara Samuels
Stage Manager: Erin Gioia Albrecht
Playwrights Horizons at 416 West 42nd Street (between Ninth & Tenth Avenues). Tickets: $39-$89. Phone (212) 279-4200 or visit online at
From 4/13/18; opening 5/09/18; closing 7/01/18.
Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 2 & 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 & 7PM.
Running time: 1 hour; 45 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 5/04/18

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