‘Dance Nation’ steps in pre-teen angst at Olney Theatre Center

Although the play bounces skillfully between scenes of humor and drama, the show lacks much of a narrative arc.

I have a lot of experience with adolescent girls. I used to be one — for several years, in fact. And I currently live with three. Three girls in their teens and pre-teens who exude emotion, drama, and insecurity on the daily. It’s a lot. And coming-of-age tales are some of my favorite kinds of stories, so I was eager to see Playwright Clare Barron’s take on the adolescent experience, Dance Nation, now making its regional debut at Olney Theatre.

The cast of ‘Dance Nation’ at Olney Theatre Center. L-R; Louis E. Davis, Shubhangi Kuchibhotla, Jasmine Joy, Ashley D. Nguyen, Megan Graves, Marybeth Wise, Brigid Cleary. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

I arrived at Olney knowing that Dance Nation had been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2019, and the main question on my mind was: why? How did this story about a team of pre-teen dance competitors from Ohio translate into material impactful and searing enough to warrant a Pulitzer Prize mention? I expected something like The Wolves or John Proctor Is the Villain, both of which had successful DC runs recently and both of which dig deep into the internal lives of teenage girls.

Dance Nation did that too, but in an unconventional way that some will find fresh, and others… just weird. The play’s very loose storyline focuses on a team of eight aspiring dancers aged 11 to 13 who are participating in regional dance competitions with the goal of making it to nationals. Throughout the play, the characters break into inner monologues that offer glimpses into their thoughts, goals, and insecurities. Conversations between the adolescents and their moms provide insight into the pressures the young girls face: living with a dance mom who pushes her lost dreams onto you, or getting your first period right before you are supposed to go onstage. By juxtaposing everyday interactions with internal self-reflections, Dance Nation is here to remind us that puberty is a time of deep anxiety and that though they be but little, tweenage girls are hella fierce. The way we process these feelings, and the circumstances that trigger them, is what shapes us into the adults we become.

But, for me, Dance Nation fails to hit the deep emotional spot that The Wolves or John Proctor touched. Although it skillfully bounces between scenes of humor and drama, the show lacks much of a narrative arc. It follows the tweens (seven girls and one brave dance boy) through two dance competitions in a loose trajectory of scenes that seem to meander more than lead to a satisfying conclusion. Some of the scenes are purposefully provocative, like one in which an insecure dancer suddenly develops vampire teeth and draws blood on her own arm. Or another where the entire cast starts chanting about the perfection of their p*ssies. Both scenes left me scratching my head and wondering what I was meant to be taking away from what I was seeing. Sure, it was provocative and envelope-pushing, but to borrow an expression I learned from my own teen, these extra scenes seemed “just so extra.”

There are many people who love this show. And maybe you will be one of those people. People I respect deeply (including NYT critic Ben Brantley) have described it as urgent and necessary. In opening remarks the night I attended the show, Artistic Director Jason Loewith said that Dance Nation was “one of the gutsiest shows we’ve programmed here” and that is probably true. This show will not be for everyone. It is certainly not for the crowd that will come to Olney for Beauty and the Beast later this year. So kudos to Loewith for continuing to take risks and expand the experiences Olney offers as he has done throughout his tenure at the theater. Olney Theatre Center truly has something for everyone in its community.

Brigid Cleary, Louis E. Davis, Shubhangi Kuchibhotla, Michael Wood, Jasmine Joy, Ashley D. Nguyen, MaryBeth Wise, and Megan Graves in ‘Dance Nation’ at Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

For anyone interested in highly nontraditional and at times lewd theatrical experience, Olney’s production is great. Director Jenna Place grabs the material by its cojones and wrests vulnerability and angst from each member of the cast, which (at the playwright’s instruction) is made up entirely of adults of varying ages playing 12- and 13-year-olds. Set Designer Paige Hathaway’s two-tier set is versatile and clever.

The ensemble cast of nine turns out uniformly compelling performances. Standouts include Brigid Cleary as Ashlee. Cleary gives one of the show’s most memorable monologues in a speech that starts with the superficial musings adults expect from teenage girls and crescendos into a vitriolic manifesto on Ashlee’s goals, of which she has many.

The primary drama in a show full of so. much. teen. drama. revolves around the characters of Amina, the troupe’s star dancer, and Zuzu, a less successful dancer who faces immense pressure from her mom and coach. As Amina and Zuzu, Jasmine Joy, and Ashley D. Nguyen turn out deeply emotional performances, imbuing their characters with believable earnestness as they grapple with decisions that will impact their lives well into adulthood.

Special mention goes to Michael Wood as Dance Teacher Pat, possibly Ohio’s most overzealous dance teacher. For a time during the show, I was worried that Pat’s storyline would veer into the realm of sexual predation, but the fact that Dance Teacher Pat never intentionally abuses the girls whispers one of the play’s great truths: that the pressure tweens face by going through the ordinary act of growing up are often enough to scar us forever. Also, Michael Wood’s over-the-top portrayal and his costumes (by Moyenda Kulemeka) are downright hilarious.

A tip of my hat to Sound Designer Kenny Neal for the high-intensity pop tunes that permeate the show. Listen for the epic mashup of Missy Elliot’s “Get Your Freak On” and Marvin Hamlish’s opening number from A Chorus Line, “I Hope I Get It,” which weaves through the pop tune like an old friend waving to the theater lovers in the audience.

The rest of the cast each contributes to the warmth of the production in their own way, most entertainingly in the group dance numbers that look as fun to perform as they are to watch (choreography by Nikki Mirza). And it’s always a good day when you can see Louis E. Davis, Megan Graves, Yesenia Iglesias, Shubhangi Kuchibhola, and Marybeth Wise onstage together.

Dance Nation is a strong addition to the growing category of plays exploring the drama of growing up. It didn’t quite work for me, but there is definitely an audience out there for this Pulitzer-finalist play, and I’m glad DC audiences are getting the chance to see it.

Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.

Dance Nation plays through October 30, 2022, in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road in Olney, MD. Tickets start at $54. Discounts are available for groups, seniors, active military, and students. To purchase, call the box office at (301) 924-3400 or go online.

Recommended for ages 13 and older.

The Dance Nation program is online here.

COVID Safety: Patrons with tickets to in-person performances are required to wear face masks during all mainstage performances. Ticket holders who do not comply with these policies will not be admitted.

Dance Nation by Clare Barron

Brigid Cleary: Ashlee
Louis Davis: Luke
Megan Graves: Sophia
Yesenia Iglesias: Moms/Vanessa
Jasmine Joy: Amina
Shubhangi Kuchibhotla: Connie
Ashley Nguyen: Zuzu
MaryBeth Wise: Maeve
Michael Wood: Dance Teacher Pat

Director: Jenna Place
Choreographer/Assistant Director: Nikki Mirza
Production Director: Josiane M. Jones
Scenic Designer: Paige Hathaway
Costume Designer: Moyenda Kulemeka
Lighting Designer: Sarah Tundermann
Sound Designer: Kenny Neal
Intimacy and Violence Director: Mallory Shear
Production Stage Manager: Bailey Howard


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