“Your problems are not real problems.” Try telling that to a teenager.
One of the few adult characters drops this nugget of tough love on the gaggle of girls (and one boy) who form the center of Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, a thrilling exploration of adolescent emotions that receives its local premiere at the Wilma Theater. But anyone who’s been a teenager — so, y’know, everyone — can sense how hollow that maxim rings.
Throughout the play’s ninety intermission-less minutes, hormones rage almost as loud as the music that underscores the intricately choreographed dance routines. We’re in Liverpool, Ohio, and the central teens are budding protegees, eager to make names for themselves on the national competition circuit. They’re at an age when everything from getting the solo to getting your period carries equal weight.
Barron doesn’t shy away from the messy aspects of self-discovery that accompany pubescence. The play addresses masturbation, menstruation, budding sexual urges and changing psychological states with refreshing frankness and minimal cutesiness. In ways that are sometimes even more revealing and unsettling, she shows how friendships start to shift, change and sometimes dissolve, as the easy comradery of childhood begins to fade. Barron understands that at a certain point in a young person’s life, nothing feels more insurmountable than the obstacle directly in front of you.
There is also plenty of unforced humor in Barron’s script, which captures the braggadocious nature of thirteen-year-olds absorbing words and ideas they don’t fully understand and parroting them back to their friends — all in an attempt to seem cool, smart and, above all else, grown-up. Barron also subtly introduces the double-consciousness of a memory play at various points, directly suggesting the women these girls will one day become. (This point is further underscored by the casting of performers who range in age from twenty-something to fifty-something.)
Under Margot Bordelon’s sensitive direction, the ensemble is copacetic and, to a person, superb. Among the dancers, the standouts include Suli Holum, who fiercely unleashes the roiling id of adolescence in a devastatingly intense monologue; and Campbell O’Hare, as a driven girl who trades friendships for achievements. O’Hare also choreographs, and she skillfully creates dances that convey each girl’s differing level of ability.
Keith J. Conallen exudes a menacing malevolence as the troupe’s teacher, a tyrant in a tracksuit. (Amanda Gladu did the spot-on costumes.) Julianna Zinkel plays a succession of mothers, nicely individuating each woman’s personality and style. And as that lone boy in a sea of blossoming womanhood, Justin Jain is perfectly overwhelmed.
Society tends to dismiss the problems faced by teenage girls — to say nothing of the fears and concerns expressed by the women they become. The same repudiation is too often seen in the theater. Dance Nation is refreshing and remarkable because it never condescends; it portrays the experience of growing and changing as a person, of becoming an adult and a woman, in all its complicated truth. And like the shiny trophies that dot the periphery of Matt Saunders’ impressive set, the Wilma’s production gleams with affecting honesty.
Dance Nation runs through November 17th. For tickets and information, visit the show’s website.