Primal Urges – a review of “Dance Nation”

By Michael Buzzelli

A group of thirteen-year-old dancers, raging with hormones, enter a series of dance competitions that will propel them to their personal Mecca, Tampa, Florida for the National competition known reverently as Nationals.

Clare Barron’s absurdist play, “Dance Nation” is a combination “Dance Moms” and “Hunger Games.”  Amina (Miya Gaines) may be the star pupil, but all of the characters in this ensemble shine.

After a boisterous sailor routine, Dance Teacher Pat (Ricardo Vila-Roger with a magnificent mane of a wig) decides to switch up the routine and go with a dance about freedom leader Mahatma Gandhi. He claims everyone will get a chance to audition for the role, while the lone Indian girl, Connie (Nandita Mahesh), is screaming “Cultural Appropriation” with every shrug, eye roll and glare of disdain.

Eventually, Connie is cast as the holy man, though Dance Teacher Pat creates a new character, the Spirit of Gandhi, and casts Zuzu (Gabby Wilson) in the role, usurping Connie’s chance to be noticed. Instead, her “starring” role keeps her seated in the lotus position for most of the routine. The Spirit of Gandhi is the real lead.

It becomes clear that Dance Teacher Pat picked Zuzu to teach Amina a lesson, and Zuzu suffers for it, mostly by biting and tearing at her own flesh like a braying wolf caught in a bear trap.

Maeve (Olivia Wick) plays a hook-handed sailor as the ensemble circles her in “Dance Nation.”

Director Kelly Trumbull keeps her cast, literally and figuratively, on their toes. “Dance Nation” has some great choreography, supplied by Tome’ Cousin, but it’s never really about the dance. It’s about the inner moments; the jealousies, the pettiness, the power and the imagination of this crazed batch of thirteen-year-olds. Children who are waiting for their lives to start, unaware they are living each moment and those moments are creating their lives.

Ashlee (Paige Wasserman) delivers the first of a series of unhinged monologues that is an alternatively hilarious and shocking rant on her self-confidence.  She is magnificent. 

Maeve (Olivia Wick) is another stand-out, oozing charismatic charm with pitch-perfect comic timing.

Molly Twigg makes several appearances throughout the show, first as Vanessa who sustains a career-ending injury. Then, she appears throughout the show as the girls’ moms (all of them with different wigs). She shocks in the first scene but lightens every other scene after that.

Luke (Cade Teribery), the lone male member (hee hee…”male member”) of the troupe, contorts his face into a variety of reactions as his teammates reveal their strengths and weaknesses.

Barron’s story is more than a story about competing thirteen-year-olds on a path to self-discovery. It’s about all those stray thoughts that live in your head. The moments you get to be as weird as you want to be. It’s about how imperfection makes you perfect.

To paraphrase from the show, albeit in a less vulgar vernacular, “Dance Nation is perfect, and it will stay that way forever.”

– MB

“Dance Nation” runs from until November 13 at Pitt Stages’ Charity Randall Theatre, 4301 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. For more information, click here.

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