Theatre en Bloc’s “Dance Nation” is a dazzling post modern satire with surprising heart

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.

‘Rub A Duck’ is a daring, experimental masterstroke

There are few things more exciting than seeing the birth of something truly unique. With just a handful of performances under their belt, Frank Wo/Men Collective has firmly planted their flag into the Austin arts landscape with their bizarre, bold, and brazen experimental performances, and with their latest, they’ve created one of the most audacious performance pieces the city has seen in years. A stunning slide in a waterlogged wonderland, Rub A Duck is an opening salvo, waking audiences up to just what this fledgling company has to offer.

At this point, you may asking, what’s this piece about? Honestly, even if I could tell you, it still wouldn’t capture the dark magic that Frank Wo/Men Collective casts in this wet, wild, and unflinching masterstroke. Taking place in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Rub A Duck transports us into the Transformation House, a home for those seeking a better identity for themselves, as we follow the grueling, moist journey of five participants, each with their own desires, goals, and personalities. What happens within the walls of this place is nothing short of jaw-dropping, as the participants perform in increasingly bizarre tasks, some of them so wild I’m not sure I could write them down without being flagged (one particular sequence involving a speculum may be the most daring act I’ve ever seen on stage). One thing they all have in common is that they present a collection of performers who are as brave as they are brash.

Part dance performance, part musical, part experimental art piece, one thing that’s for certain is that I’ve seen few things like Rub A Duck. Not since Rude Mechanicals’ Dionysus in 69 have a I felt so shaken by a performance, and if I’m comparing a company to the Rude Mechs, you know we’re talking about something special. Every performer is at the top of their game, showing rare bravery and skill, going the extra limit to leave every bit of blood, sweat, and tears on the floor. Of particular note is Kelsey Oliver as Participant 4, whose ferocious fervor kept the audience spellbound, especially as things spun into pure madness in the play’s later moments, showing full control of every inch of her body throughout, contorting them to horrifying levels.

As I left the performance, it hit me that I didn’t quite know how to review this piece. One of my companions left absolutely inspired, waiting with baited breath for the next Frank Wo/Men show; the other left completely traumatized. One thing that’s for sure, everyone left the show a changed person, and isn’t that what we’re all looking for in art? I for one will be first in line for the next production.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Bradford.

Arts in Austin: April 2018

As spring falls upon Austin, the city finds itself packed to the gills with arts events for all tastes. Whether you’re looking to take in a night of theatre, explore foreign cinematic wonders, or dip your toe into the art world, there’s an event for you this month. Here’s a rundown of some of the biggest arts event for the month of April:

Art City Austin

Palmer Event Center

Saturday, April 14, 2018 – Sunday, April 15 from 10 AM – 6 PM

On the weekend of April 14th, Arts Alliance Austin will be transforming the Palmer Pavilion into an artistic wonderland with the 68th Art City Austin event, bringing in over 120 of the most intriguing artists from Austin and around the globe to present art of all styles, from painting to metalwork, and everything in between. Art City has held a special place in the hearts of Austin arts fans for decades, and with tickets only $10, it’s hard to pass this one up.

For more information, visit the Arts Alliance Austin page at artallianceaustin.org.

UT New Theatre Festival

April 12-22, 2018

Oscar G. Brockett Theatre

For years, UTNT has provided Austin audiences an excellent opportunity to take in works of some of the most talented up-and-coming playwrights, and for their 2018 they’ve pulled another talented bunch. Featuring new works from Travis Tate, Drew Paryzer, and Paz Pardo, there’s something for every taste, featuring everything from fledgling witches, feisty poets, to prodigal sons. Some amazing playwrights have gotten their start here, so don’t miss the chance to see these writers, any of whom could become the next big thing in contemporary theatre

For more information, visit theatredance.utexas.edu

Performance Park

March 23-May 12

Vortex Repertory Theatre

Vortex has never been interested in easy categorization, and their latest project, Performance Park looks to blur the lines between art forms ever further. The event includes a boardwalk, a fortune telling spot, performance art, and so much more, creating a multi-headed beast has something new with every turn, where no two nights are the same. Early reviews have been raves, and with several more weeks to attend, you still have plenty of chances to take in what’s being called a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

For more information, visit VortexRep.Org.

Exit Wounds

April 6-8

Long Center for the Performance Arts

Ballet Austin’s Stephen Mills is a unique talent, producing personal, passionate works that enrich the mind as much as they ensnare and enrapture the senses. With his latest work, Exit Wounds, he presents a piece in three chapters, each exploring situation in which Mills witnessed acts of true courage, that each changed the way he looked at the world. It’s bound to be an awe-inspiring piece of performance art, and one that dance fans do not want to miss.

For more information, visit BalletAustin.org. 

 

New French Cinema Week

April 25 – April 28

Austin Film Society

Those seeking an escape from the bombast of the blockbusters making their way across Austin cinemas can’t find refuge in Austin Film Society, who will be presenting works from contemporary French filmmakers through their “New French Cinema Week”. With eleven films and events spread over five days, there’s plenty of French wonder to take in, including Oscar-nominee The Red Turtle, festival favorites Custody and Montparnasse Bienvenue, and even a filmmaking class from Camera D’or winnner Julie Roue.

For more information, visit AustinFilm.org

Austin Dance Festival

April 6-8

AustinVentures Studio Theatre

Pulling in artists from around the world, the Austin Dance Festival is three days of pure entertainment, which includes not only performances from over 20 different dance groups, but also classes, film screenings, interviews, and even a silent auction.  You can even enjoy a glimpse of the future of dance with a youth performance on Sunday the 8th, where dancers ages 13-18 will perform their own professional pieces. The dancers involved have been the recipients of several Austin Critics Table Awards, so it’s sure to be a weekend of polished, professional performances from some of the top dancers in town.

For more information, visit kdhdance.com.

Image courtesy of Art Alliance Austin.