“I could have played the part of Saint Joan. I ought to have played it. I have the ample figure, the hardy physique of a farm-servant. Joan was a buxom creature. Yet she is always played by thin little actresses.”
– Isadora Duncan to Sewell Stokes, Isadora Duncan: An Intimate Portrait (1928)
That quote sounds petty, doesn’t it? One of the greatest dancers of the 20th century throwing shade at another performer – most likely Winifred Lenihan or Sybil Thorndike, or both – because that performer got the role she didn’t? This despite the fact that Duncan had already achieved the sort of worldwide fame (and infamy) of which others can only. For all we know, Isa may have had her friend Aleister Crowley put some kind of hex on the actress(es). In fact, could Isa even act?
But, then again, who hasn’t felt the green-eyed monster taking over every now and then? I’ve been in the performing arts more than 20 years now, and I’d need the combined computer power of NASA and MIT to calculate the number of “I should have gotten that part!” stories I know, not even counting my own.
Now take all that inner-fire and put it into the still-developing bodies & minds of adolescents who think the here and now is all that matters; who don’t know that their youth means there’s still an endless amount of opportunities that await them. In fact, consider that these are adolescent girls, who are being taught at from near-birth to maintain a level of superficial “perfection” that’s actually impossible.
This is the world of Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, a dark comedy about a troupe of competitive young dancers in a no-name Ohio town (it’s Liverpool) who’ve been trained to treat a regional competition as if their lives depended on it.
And that’s just the thing: their lives don’t depend on it. As kids, we’re usually told that we should give up certain interests once they’re “no longer fun”; that “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”; that our safety is the highest priority. But soon, we realize that our parents may be trying to live their dreams through us. Or that they don’t know when to draw the line between “support” and “obsession” – just look at any Little League game that’s ended with fist-fighting parents (or worse). Watching the characters of Dance Nation – with their overbearing coach (Liam Robertson) and, for the most part, equally overbearing mothers (all played by Michelle Talgarow) – is to understand how a monster like Larry Nassar could get away with his crimes for as long as he did.
Granted, we never see “Dance Teacher Pat” cross the line as far as Nassar, but the way he leers over individual members of his troupe can’t help but make your skin crawl. Mostly, he uses psychological abuse, gaslighting them each into believing they gave less-than-their-best, when they gave twice as much. He gets into their heads, but constantly does so within a horrible breathing distance.
And what of the girls themselves? Most of the comedy – and yes, I haven’t forgotten this is a comedy – comes from the girls (and sole male dance Luke) openly contemplating the speed-bumps of puberty, such as with Amina (Indiia Wilmott) having clumsily tried masturbating, but doesn’t seem to have gotten the hang of it. Or when Sofia (Ash Mallory) experiences the horror of wearing a white dress at the worst possible time.
Then there’s Ashlee (the Bay Area’s own Lauren Spencer), who gives a direct-to-audience soliloquy about how she’s aware of the (mostly older) male attention her body draws. She considers it both a blessing and a curse the way the soliloquy is self is both comedic and tragic. And there’s dear, sweet Maeve (Playhouse regular Julia Brothers), who seems almost forgotten compared to the others, but is there to deliver one of the most powerful moments of emotional support in the entire play.
I realize that as I look over the above I haven’t mentioned how injured dancers are replaced like candies in a Pez dispenser, how the coach essentially gives two dancers the same role to have them compete, or how a warm-up routine becomes an hilariously juvenile attempt to get Amina to say something that is not “plié”. That’s because I don’t want to spoil all that happens in this jam-packed show, nor would I be able to cover every detail in one review otherwise. Suffice it to say, this is a show meant to antidote to shows like Bring it On. It doesn’t end with “Happily Ever After”, it makes you wonder if they were ever happy to begin with.
In addition to the all-around fine cast the Playhouse has assembled, director Becca Wolff has assembled some of the company’s best technicians as well. Upon first seeing Angrette McCloskey’s set for the dance studio, my first thought was, “It kinda looks cheap”. Then I immediately realized that was the point: the garish color scheme, splinter-spawning wooden steps, and old-fashioned wooden barre are indicative of public facility that hasn’t updated in decades. It’s a brilliant design showcasing how quickly public funds dry up, and that’s before the set rotates and opens to reveal the (unseen) upstage audience. Well done. Wen-Lina Liao’s lights – which are much more than spots – and Teddy Hulsker’s sounds – which I most noticed during the scene where Ashlee and Connie are post-rehearsal – are equally adept at building atmosphere.
Melissa Trn’s costumes are actually a bit of a hoot, as they include not only standard dancewear, but also “team color” jackets every kid has forced on them at one point, and the flowing robes of the “Gandhi” routine that seem the most well-conceived part of the show-within-the-show. And I’d be remiss not to mention Kimberly Richards’ choreography. A Playhouse performer herself, Richards gives the cast a believable sense of rhythm with their own bodies, even if they aren’t doing high-kicks the entire show.
It’s hard to tell what time period the show takes place in. I don’t recall anyone using mobile phones or mentioning period-specific events, and the design of the studio might have been recently updated from the characters’ perspectives. But that’s all superficial. The “pressured child prodigy” theme is certainly one that hasn’t gone away. As much as we worry about over-doping kids with Ritalin and the like, we constantly vote down measures to lessen school hours and decrease class sizes. We’ve thrown more pressure onto them only to complain when they don’t go above and beyond.
As the lights went down at the end of Dance Nation, I found my now-nearly-40-year-old self desperately hoping these kids figure out that life doesn’t end with youth dance competition. I hoped that they’d grow up, have kids of their own, and not pressure them the way their coach and mothers did. I found myself in that inevitable adult position of wanting to explain to a young person that “This isn’t all there is.” But if I did, I know the kids wouldn’t believe me. I didn’t.
It’s a sad story, but it makes for good SF Playhouse show.
Dance Nation is scheduled to run until the 9th of November on the mainstage of the San Francisco Playhouse.
The show runs roughly 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.