I first came upon “Dance Nation” on a random October night, a light rain falling on a too-hot Autumn afternoon. Though I had made other plans that night, the play had gripped me, leaving me unable to escape its world. The moment I finished it, I knew that someone in this city must produce it, and low-and-behold, just a few months later, it would be gracing the stages of the Long Center, in the hands of one of Austin’s most talented directors. Theatre en Bloc’s production of this bold, unique work keeps everything I first loved about the work intact, while filling it with life and artistry that elevates an already incredible work to new heights.
“Dance Nation” is one of the most audacious pieces of theatre I’ve seen in some time. Though on paper, the story of a group of dancer striving to win a competition seems rote, Clare Barron turns this on its head in a delightfully batty way, giving us a warts-and-all look at the life of the teenage girl, complete with sex talks, period talk, and so much more. The play is full of nudity, sexually explicit and raunchy dialogue, and other extreme moments that might have the more mild-mannered in the audience blushing, but despite it all, it never seems gratuitous, but instead helps in building the play’s universe, grounding the action, and aiding the audience’s ability to empathize with these dancers.
Realism isn’t quite what Barron is going for here, however. From the early stages, it’s obvious that the action here is taken to a more extreme level. For one, these dancers, ranged from 11-14, are cast with actors of all ages, making for a disorienting time in the play’s early moments, but also leading to some of the play’s funniest moments. Much of the dialogue and action of the play is also presented in a highly stylized, even post-modern style, with everything from dialog to movement being exaggerated to the most extreme manner, making for a huge challenge for each of our actors, as one moment they’ll be hissing or whispering their lines, and the next they’ll be screaming at the top of their lungs, or even writing on the ground like vampires.
Though the play brings plenty of shocked laughs, there are also moments of surprising pathos. There are numerous moments in Barron’ story that are sure to bring a few tears, as the earnest desires of many of our characters make them very sympathetic, and their struggles are sure to remind us of our own foibles. One of the more surprising moments of real emotion comes from the more comical character, Maeve, a playful, youthful dancer, head always adorned with cat ears, but who is played by older actress Elise Jacobs, a fun, odd piece of casting. She gets her moment to shine, however, near the end of the play where she is given her own monologue, during which we’re regaled with a recollection from her youth, which is drawn in a very poignant and heart-rending way by the monologue’s end. It’s all part of what makes “Dance Nation” such a wonder, in that it’s able to bring out so many shocks and laughs while never losing sight of its heart.
Dance Nation is replete with one of the most talented casts I’ve seen together in some time. Seeing Austin all-stars like Sarah Danko, Susan Myburgh, Amy Downing, and the rest of the talented cast share the stage is nothing short of a wonder, and throw Dennis Bailey into the mix and it becomes something truly special. Each actor is able to breathe their own unique life into their characters, so that each one seems to be living their own separate narrative. You feel that, at any point in the play, we could spin off and follow any of the play’s characters, and still have an amazing time, and that is the sign of excellent production, and a testament to the ability of this cast.
Though I wish I had the time to go through and celebrate each of the performers, special notice must be given to the work done by Katy Atkinson as Ashlee. The young performer shows skills well beyond her years, using her raw charisma to give life to her explosive monologue early in the piece. She carries herself with such confidence and polish that you’re bound to be awe-stricken by the time she leaves the stage. She also elevates nearly every scene she’s in, with her remarkable physicality and bold choices.
Being such a fan of the original work, Theatre en Bloc’s “Dance Nation” had a lot to prove, but Jenny Lavery, as always, pulls off something magical here, elevating an already astounding piece of writing into something audiences will be talking about for months. Featuring one of the best casts ever assembled in Austin, the play is bold, audacious, and hilarious, while never losing its heart or emotional relevance. It may not be for everyone, and indeed, can be difficult to recommend to some theatre-goers, but for those willing to take the leap, it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.
Photo courtesy of Theatre en Bloc.