Monday, September 30, 2019

"Dance Nation"

Dance Nation
Clare Barron

The Cast of Dance Nation
Thirteen.  Oh, God, when I remember thirteen, I get this strange knot in my stomach and a wave of brief nausea.  I was already six-foot, two-inches, and stuck out like a sore thumb in the school hallway.  I was awkward and stumbled over my size-twelve feet; my voice squeaked; my thick glasses slipped too often down my nose.  And did I mention those first pimples popping up overnight?  Just writing this, I feel a little sick.

But I was a boy.  After watching San Francisco Playhouse’s West Coast premiere of Clare Barron’s Dance Nation about six, thirteen-year-old girls who are experiencing the crossover from little girl to womanhood, all I can say is that I had it easy as a pre-pubescent boy.  The whiplashes of the emotional roller coaster these girls ride in a normal day are enough to send anyone running to the nearest bathroom (which happens several times for them in the course of the play).

While there are certainly a lot of moments when the world and its possibilities seem endless for a thirteen-year-old, Clare Barron reminds us that growing pains are very much real and that they leave scars.  In a stroke of genius, the playwright insists the six girls are played by actors in their thirties through sixties, allowing us to experience the girls in the bodies they will someday inhabit and for them periodically to transcend time’s boundaries to give us a glimpse of their future, often painful memories of the girls they once were and that we now see before us.

The Cast
These girls are living the lives that many their age might die to have: they are just three competition wins away from getting on a plane and going as a dance troupe to compete for a national dance title in Tampa, Florida.  Dance Teacher Pat (yeah, that is what they actually always call him) reminds them as they all stare at an elevated row of past years’ trophies that no one knows today who were the girls of 1996 – “It’s like they never existed” – but that everyone remembers those of 1997.  That difference between losing and winning is something these girls take in with looks both hungry for victory and frightened what if they are someday forgotten. 

Already, we see little girls who have grown-up ambitions for their moment in the spotlight, fired up by the cliché-barking of their pacing, arm-swinging teacher as he spits out phrases like “Show me you want it!”  Liam Robertson is like the stereotype of an army drill sergeant as he gets in the girls’ faces, belittles and praises in the same breath, and warns “Don’t get lazy” even as they demonstrate tirelessly for him a movement time and again. 

Michelle Talgarow & Liam Robertson
On the other end are the girls’ moms – stage moms who sometimes have moments of being a demanding Momma Rose who are trying to live out their missed chances through their daughters but who mostly are compassionate and supportive, troubled and worried, frustrated that they cannot make it better and even ready to go to battle when their daughter is not getting a fair shake by their teacher.  Michelle Talgarow is all this and more as she plays all “The Moms.”

The Cast
In the troupe of six, we meet a group of giggly, horse-playing friends who are also often vying competitors for the starring spots of the dances.  In one hilarious but telling scene, the girls line up on the stage’s edge with light splashed on their faces (part of Wen-Ling Liao’s lighting prowess) to try out for the lead role of Gandhi – Dance Teacher Pat’s creation as their ticket to nationals.  With a cute nod to Chorus Line, they all half-sing, half-say “I hope I get it” as they begin to move just their heads, mouths, and eyes in all sorts of exaggerated looks of shock, fear, hope, and desperation as they are giving us only a glimpse of their try-out moves while their teacher shouts his commands.

When not on the dance floor, the real lives of these girls and their relationships unfold before us.  Today’s locker room topic might be how to masturbate and what it should feel like, with descriptions of their nether regions given in graphic details by those more knowledgeable while those still inexperienced and naïve listen in wide-eyed, envious awe.  The terrifying onset of a first period (and its resulting blood) is met with knowing looks by other girls and also by their sudden, supportive growls and cheers like those of rugby players as they urge the tearful girl to get up and wear her new red badge with girl pride.  These are girls who find strength together in their newly-erupting sexuality and onslaught of womanhood.

But these girls are also still very young at times, as we see in Connie (Mohanna Rajagopal) who prays in her bed while clasping her lucky, toy horse in her hands, “Dear God ... Pleeeease give me Gandhi.”  There is tall Maeve with her unruly hair who collects pictures of wolves and whose little girl looks of wonder, impishness, distraction, and stubborn determination are all the more funny since Maeve is played by the oldest actor on the evening’s stage, an absolutely delightful Julia Brothers.   Like a kids’ club, several of the girls swear by drinking coffee that is half sugar to be loyal to death to each other, forming a secret group named Zamsac (using the letters of all their first names).

These same little girls have big-girl pressures.  Zuzu (Krystle Piamonte) is a good, solid dancer but worries that people “don’t say they cry when they watch me dance” like they do when they watch her friend Amina (Indiia Wilmont) dance.  “I know because I cry when I watch Amina dance.”  Amina – in fact the star dancer among the group – both is driven to be the best and to win (“When they get the trophies out, I just get the taste of metal”) but also confesses that sometimes she just wants to lose because “like I feel like I hurt people just by existing.”  Such is the price when you automatically take over the star role when your friend Zuzu falls on stage, yourself then winning a special crown as “most valued dancer.”

As much as the current lives of these teens is excruciating, difficult, and yet intriguing to watch, the power of Clare Barron’s script and Becca Wolff’s direction is when each girl reflectively time travels to a memory she will someday have of this period of her life.  Maeve has a sense at times that she can fly but realizes with regret that “one day I’ll forget I ever got to fly.”  The uber-talented Amina is sure “my entire life will be a victory” but also realizes that one day she will understand  that in that life “So I was alone.”

As the one boy in the troupe, Luke (Bryan Munar), is riding home with his mom one night as she discusses her day.  With head on her shoulder, he tells us that he knows that someday he will be experiencing in a car the same feelings as now –  that “delicious kind of sleepy” as the “world is whirling by” with “raindrops on the window shield” – but that he will also be listening for a mom that is no longer there.

Lauren Spencer
One of the most powerful of portrayals is given by Lauren Spencer as the already mature in body, Ashlee.  She proudly looks at herself in the mirror and brags about “my perfect ass” as well as flaunting her face and tits in wonderful, self-generated brouhaha.  She is one moment aloof and scowling among her friends, only to be in the next moment the first to lead a rousing cheer for the team that is full of four-letter-filled words that would embarrass most boys her age.  Her Ashlee is at other times the one most tender and most revealing with her friends, sharing one of those foreseen, time-splicing moments with Connie as she tells her how they will someday meet and discover that as girls and dance-team mates, they both suffered silently and alone debilitating, near-disastrous depression.

As powerful as these and other future-remembered moments are along with all the funny as well as painful-to-watch scenes of growing up that we see these kids go through, I have to admit that at times Dance Nation just goes so over the top in its explicit, repeated use of certain, locker-room words and foul-mouthed phrases that I lost interest and just wanted the next scene to begin.  A final cheer and chant that turns into repeated shouting by the entire cast came close to ruining the entire evening for me; anyone attending needs to be prepared for some very raw language and word imagery.  I also personally did not see the need for an opening scene of locker-room nudity of what were supposed to be thirteen-year-olds (even though these actors are of course much older and are all adults).  The scene, in my opinion, would have been just as strong with a little more cover-up of these supposed early teens.

But in the end, Dance Nation is a powerful reminder of what all of us – women and men – went through at a crucial and precarious juncture in our growing up years and what pieces of that time for us still linger to this day as part of who we are.  San Francisco Playhouse has once again pushed its and our own boundaries of safety and security in order to cause in this case long-dormant emotions and memories to awaken, to rumble uncomfortably about, and to stimulate new awareness of what the teens around us are often experiencing.

Rating: 3 E

Dance Nation continues through November 9, 2019 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli

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