Playwright: Clare Barron
At: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650 or Steppenwolf.org; $20-$94. Runs through Feb. 2
When you are a child, every conversation, school day and rehearsal feels like life or death.
In Clare Barron's Dance Nation, now in a propulsive Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf, life and death stakes are not metaphorical. Dance for the pre-teens in this play does not simply feel like life or death. The courses of their lives can be changed by one single movement, and no adults around them seems to understand that.
Played by actors of various ages, though embodying the physicality and inner lives of 13-year-olds, the play's dance troupe is consumed by the idea of winning nationals and creating a dance legacy that long outlives their time in Dance Teacher Pat's ( Tim Hopper ) gym. Best friends Amina ( Karen Rodriguez ) and Zuzu ( Caroline Neff ) try to balance a performance-based reality with their love for one another. Luke ( Torrey Hanson ) struggles with his crush on Zuzu. Connie ( Adithi Chandrashekar ) just wants to be seen, while Ashlee ( Shanésia Davis ) and Sofia ( Ariana Burks ) navigate the power of growing older. Maeve ( Ellen Maddow ), a wolf obsessive, is an oddball, but basically fine. And Audrey Francis as all the dance moms is supportive and warm.
Director Lee Sunday Evans uses a wide scope in her alley staging. The actors are often isolated in different groups across the stage, representing their emotional and intellectual loneliness, with Heather Gilbert's lighting brilliantly spotlighting important direct address moments where characters talk to the audience as their future selves. Evan doubles as a choreographer, and she smartly presents her young dancers as the learners and strivers they are. There is beauty to be found in their efforts, as with all children. Hanson and Maddow excel at presenting gangly, growing physicality, while Neff and Chandrashekar embody wide-eyed longing with poignancy. Davis commands the stage as someone ready to burst into a fully realized self, and Rodriguez brings to bear how awful it can be to be so good at something you love.
Barron's script addresses pre-teen angst with sensitivity and alacrity, but there are two stumbles to note. One involves Dance Teacher Pat staging a dance about Gandhi, which is a humorous idea highlighting artistic insensitivity, but the joke does not go deep enough to justify itself. And towards the end of the play, the equation of female identity primarily with genitalia made me wonder if Barron considered not all women have periods or vaginas. There is danger in stating that this play is a fully universal experience, and that is something to be mindful of going in.
However, the director's stunning work and the wonderful, eager ensemble work keep the production on track. Dance Nation is raucous, weird and heartfeltmuch like the soul of a typical young teen.