Clare Barron’s acclaimed play “Dance Nation” is a comedy with dancing, but it’s no musical. It’s not really even, at its core, about dance.
The play follows a girls’ competitive dance team from East Liverpool, Ohio, trying to claw a path to nationals: the Boogie Down Grand Prix, in Tampa Bay, Fla. But by Barron’s design, the adolescent dancers are played not by kids, but by adults: six women and one man ranging in age from their 20s to a few decades older.
“Think of it as a ghost play,” writes Barron in the preface to her script. “The actors’ older bodies are haunting these 13-year-old characters.”
Pulling off that effect is one challenge facing barebones productions as it presents the regional premiere of “Dance Nation.” The play won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama. In reviewing the 2018 Off-Broadway production, the New York Times called it “glorious.” The barebones show is also the first Pittsburgh staging of any play by Barron, who at 33 is among the country’s most lauded up-and-coming playwrights.
“Dance Nation” uses dance – and some over-the-top comedy – to explore female empowerment.
“It’s looking at the untamed 13-year-old – that door-slamming, passionate, you know, brave thing that has yet to be contained. And what would happen if that [containment] didn’t happen? What could I be? What could I have been?” director Melissa Martin said before a recent rehearsal at barebones’ theater, in Braddock.
As the dancers themselves chant at one point, “EAT SLEEP DANCE EAT SLEEP WIN.”
Some of their pubescent ferocity is inculcated by Dance Teacher Pat, the lone adult male character, who in one scene admonishes his charges, “No limp arms or I’ll cut them off!”
Part of the comedy is Dance Teacher Pat’s conception for the team’s new routine: It’s about Gandhi.
“He’s so serious,” said Martin. “Because he so believes he’s an artist. And that Gandhi is an appropriate thing for 13-year-olds to be dancing about.”
Cast members said they are excited by the play’s wildly theatrical style, which ranges from a poignant realism to fantasy sequences.
“It really celebrates women and I feel like we haven’t seen a lot of plays do that,” says Liron Blumenthal, who plays the star dancer, Amina. “It very much embraces female sensibility.”
“It’s one of the best plays I’ve read in 25 years,” said David Conrad, a Pittsburgh native and occasional barebones collaborator who’s known for film and TV roles in shows like CBS TV’s “Ghost Whisperer.” Conrad plays Dance Teacher Pat.
Other “Dance Nation” characters include the troupe’s second-best dancer, Zuzu (played by Hope Anthony), and Ashlee (Lissa Brennan), whom Barron describes as “future president of a post-apocalyptic USA.” The single role encompassing all the dancers’ moms is played by Nancy McNulty. The ensemble cast also includes Carey Anne Spear, Mita Ghosal, Mei Lu Barnum, and Jerreme Rodriguez.
Due to swearing and mature content, the play is recommended for audiences 15 and up.
Barron’s themes include women’s struggle to learn how to compete in a culture that discourages their aggression. Blumenthal finds that paradox in her character, Amina. “She’s very driven,” she said. “She’s very, very good, but she feels a lot of guilt over the fact that she’s really, really good.”
“One of the directives the playwright gives is, ‘Everyone is nice. No one is mean,’” noted Martin. “These girls are not power-hungry. They want to be the best. There’s a difference.”
For the often comic choreography, barebones has recruited a heavy hitter: Tomé Cousin, the Carnegie Mellon University professor with credits on Broadway and around the world. And several cast members have significant dance experience, including such alumni of Point Park University’s theater program as Blumenthal, Anthony and Barnum.
But don’t let all those dance chops distract you: Playwright Barron cautions that while the play needs to be carefully choreographed, it is “better if the actors possess no real dance talent.”
“She wants us to look at the way these characters’ bodies move now, at the age they are now,” said Martin.
“Dance Nation” opens Friday and runs through Dec. 15. Ticket information is here.