Competition is so pervasive in our culture that we take it as a given. Who will thwack the heck out of our opponents and score the winning touchdown? Who will squeeze by with a score three-tenths of one point over the rival 200-piece marching band and carry home a sweepstakes trophy the size of a totem pole? Who will get into the best university, land the coveted manager position, crush the Candy Crush also-rans?
We’re so used to competition that when it’s part of the narrative of one of our entertainments – but then doesn’t take center stage as we’d expect – it can be disorienting.
That’s the case with “Dance Nation,” the terrific (and not-to-be-missed) play by Pulitzer Prize-finalist Clare Barron in its second and final weekend at Cal Arts Severance Theatre. (It’s the first fully staged production of the newly founded UR Here Theatre company, which is known for its play readings of contemporary works and pressing societal subjects.) At first glance, the storyline seems to fall into standard competition category: A prestigious youth dance company led by a hotshot dance teacher is this year once again speeding toward a national title. Along the way, they have to knock off their regional competitors. May the best (and most ruthless) dancers win.
Except Barron’s exceptional script doesn’t follow the usual tropes. We don’t get to know the opponents, so we don’t really care if and when they are vanquished. The tension doesn’t build as we rocket toward the big national championship. We aren’t treated to catty little sub-narratives of jealousy and clique-building. The finals, in fact, are treated almost like an afterthought. We get updates on it, and we’re aware that it’s happening in the background, but it doesn’t even seem all that important.
What is important is the intense world of women created by director Ruth Griffin and technical director Chris Mangels. With Griffin’s fluid staging – every beat important, every motion meaningful, every musical moment expertly wrought – and Mangels’ innovative sense of light and space, the show soars.
The key: These dancer characters are mostly 13-year-old girls, but the actual age range is from 28 to 58. (The one “boy” in the company is played by a man, as is the age-appropriate dance teacher.)
And what do these women impart to the audience? Big, whopping revelations about adolescence filtered through mature eyes. And big, whopping revelations about maturity filtered through adolescent eyes. (Because we never truly outgrow our formative teen years.) The play’s taut framework features tender monologues, brash performance pieces, fierce dance numbers (by Griffin and Siena Simas), wry humor and a general all-around sense of smartness.
The acting is potent and memorable. I was stunned at the impact of some of the play’s solo moments. Camille Gaston, as Ashlee, delivers a pounding, mesmerizing view of solipsism. (If she’s the only one in her universe, she might as well have the best body and most impressive brain.) Haley White delivers a moment of whimsy that at first soars and then settles into melancholy, as we ponder our separation from the innocence and wonder of childhood. Nwachukwu gives us a profound moment of aloof realization – the knowledge that Amina is better than the rest, and her fate is either to rise above and accept her destiny or hang back and be pulled under by her not-quite-as-spectacular friends.
And, in a superb performance, Tracy Hostmyer, playing a character decades younger than herself, gives us a heartbreaking glimpse of the vast “middle” inhabited by, well, most of us. As a dancer, Hostmyer’s Zuzu is competent, but she doesn’t soar. She doesn’t make anyone cry when she performs. She doesn’t make any hearts beat faster. She’s good enough. In Hostmyer’s gifted hands, it all feels raw and real.
The rest of the ensemble cast is impressive: Anand Purewal Ray as the troubled Connie; Haley Wallace as Sofia; Jared Serpa as the enigmatic Luke (whose driving scene with his mom is another piercing moment); Karina Balfour as “all” the mothers, from comforting to cranky; and an almost scarily impenetrable performance by Mason T. Beltran, whose “Dance Teacher Pat” is a strange cross between barking drill sergeant, volatile figure of male dominance, and wise, enlightened sage.
What did I expect when I walked into “Dance Nation”? A competition play. Instead, I got a head-rush of insight, bemusement, feminism, confusion, solidarity and laugh-out-loud recognition. If that’s not worth a trophy the size of a totem pole, I don’t know what is.