Dance Nation review- Steppenwolf Theatre Company shows us the fearsome world of preteen competition

Shanésia Davis, with the cast of "Dance Nation" by Clare Barron directed by Lee Sunday Evans in Steppenwolf's Chicago premiere

Clare Barron’s Dance Nation is currently in production in the Upstairs Theatre at Stepppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, through February 2, 2020.

Featuring ensemble members Audrey FrancisTim Hopper, Caroline Neff and Karen Rodriguez along with Adriana BurkeAdithi ChandrashekarShanésia DavisTorrey Hanson and Ellen Madow,  unflinchingly directed and choreographed by Lee Sunday Evans, it’s a sobering treatise on what it’s like to be pushed beyond endurance by a helicoptering dance mom, a mirthless dance coach, and no dance talent. As the characters are supposed to be (aging) 13-year olds, it’s also an unfunny look at facing rabid competition without understanding even the nature of what your bodies will demand or how they will succumb.

If dreaming you can fly can be interpreted as sexual, (check your dream interpretation manual) then these  pre-teens, driven to mad umbrage by menstruation and desperately trying to masturbate to orgasm, ready to rend their flesh if they can’t get the steps right, are about as close to fear of flying as one can get.

It’s tough enough to move beyond this most awkward phase of young womanhood, without having to compete against your classmates and countless others, week after week, in senseless “routines” that sap your strength and dull your creative juices. Think how soul-deadening it must be to prance about in shoddy competition togs, with gruesome makeup, and what it must cost if you simultaneously wish to drop out, must fake-compliment your colleagues, and are driven to constantly promote yourself? Would you tear pieces out of your arm with your teeth? Wipe your menstrual blood all over your face, bare your fangs and shriek about the special, splendid nature of your genitalia? You might!

Ellen Madow, Ariana Burks, and Caroline Neff in Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere of “Dance Nation”

Pushing the young into amateur dance competition is big business and generates big bucks in America. All across this country, tacky ballrooms filled with little girls in spangled costumes and leotards are pushed by one or more parents, instructors with little talent themselves and too often, little regard for the psyches or bodily health of their well-paying charges into bouts of prancing as they participate in local, regional, and national contests. This overblown world of “competitive” dance has spawned a forest of studios where children can lose their childhood innocence and freedom for the dubious opportunity to win meaningless trophies. 

The piece is a dissonant and relentless look inside the rise of dance in the popular culture; it’s become a component of TV shows and streaming series, videos and concerts, advertising and films of all types, and combined with the cultural obsession with finding/rating winners (and thus, losers) in every endeavor from cooking and singing to business plans, dance has emerged from an elite art form into a business in the strip mall. Simultaneously, this has upped the ante for “real” dancers while creating misery for average kids- mostly girls, of course.

Judging dance by points and trophies distorts an art form into a competitive sport and encouraging kids eager to become leaping strutting trophy winners can further push the all-too-brief joys of childhood into the background, exploiting the credulity and pocketbooks of ambitious/indulgent parents who then spend big dough to push or create achievement-driven offspring, and tax them with long and unrealistic hours of training and pressure to win. 

The play demonstrates all too well how credulous youth so burdened can become maniacally jealous of their colleagues, exhausted, depressed  and  ultimately surrender the dreams and what should be shared impulses of youth to self and other-directed viciousness. At a time when tweens struggle with understanding their changing bodies, swapping confidences and kotex, and still playing with toy horses, forcing them to grow up too fast into a worldview that never should exist does them a lifelong disservice. 

The cast of “Dance Nation” by Clare Barron in Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere

Yet, so does a production that seems to exploit the very aspects of their lives that should be protected; there was no linear growth of storytelling, and no real examination of the issues. Mainly, there were scenes meant to startle interspersed with monologues and little interludes between the characters that failed to develop into relationships. Or maybe these fragmented tangents of plot ARE what passes for young life in the face of untender stage-motherhood, mean-spirited coaching, and no thoughtful training…maybe that’s part of the point.

This cast, all of whom are older than preteens- some considerably older- do a fine job of eating up and spitting out the script, flashing their fangs, drawing blood, and remaining singularly devoid of any affect at all as they execute oddball steps and jumps. They seem terrifyingly unengaged and world-weary, and isn’t that the rest of the point here? Distort your child’s  nature if you dare and watch how the unhappy endings of the Brothers Grimm tales come back to haunt us in the form of  the monsters that emerge.

Thanks to the production team including Arnulfo Maldonado, scenic designer; Christine Pascual, costume designer; Heather Gilbert, lighting designer; Mikhail Fiksel, sound designer; and Mary Williamson, special effects consultant.

All photos by Michael Brosilow.

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