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Essay

From the Artistic Director: Dance Nation

By Tim Sanford, Artistic Director

“Blessed are the dancers and those who are purified / Who dance on the hill in the holy dance of god.”
The Bacchae, Euripides Translated by William Arrowsmith 

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.”
The Empty Space, Peter Brook 

ASHLEE: What am I going to do with all this power?
Dance Nation, Clare Barron
 

Power surges everywhere through adolescence: power through the mysterious, frightening ubiquity of sexuality, power in the desperately enmeshed bonds of friendship, power in the search for a self-defined identity, fueled by creativity and competition. Hormones are only a fraction of the fuel for this power. The major action occurs in the brain, where imprinted neuro patterns of childhood are sloughed off and remade through a boundless, biologically driven appetite for risk and novelty. 

Nothing is off-limits in her storytelling and the play never averts its eyes.

Power also surges everywhere through Dance Nation. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a play that captures as fully the breadth and depth of the adolescent experience, and certainly not one about adolescent girls. There is a deliberate political aspect to this exploration. I first read Dance Nation very shortly after the release of the notorious Access Hollywood tape. Its frank, unapologetically coarse depiction of teenaged girls’ “locker room talk” felt like the ultimate expression of “pussy grabs back,” all the more so because Clare clearly wrote it well before the President’s scot-free bombshell. Nothing is off-limits in her storytelling and the play never averts its eyes. So there is something undeniably empowering in its candor, and I quickly felt myself swept up by its affirmational force. 

Much as Dance Nation is energized by its politics, however, its enduring power lies in its artistry, an artistry that begins in the authenticity of Clare’s characters and the high stakes of their preparations for competitive dance contests. Except for their dance teacher and one all-purpose mom, all the characters are teenagers. Clare well understands the subtle jockeying for pecking order and the fierce loyalty of team dynamics. She also understands the ferocity of their will to victory. They may as well be soldiers. But these girls also contend with sometimes crippling insecurities. So the tone flips restlessly between swaggering roars and awkward pauses. Clare insists we see the humanity of these girls. She is on high alert for the latent impulses (force fed through Hollywood) to cutesify the depiction and performance of them. This leads to the play’s boldest stroke: the choice to cast these characters with actors of a wide range of ages. Hence we see the women-to-be in the younger actors and the ghosting of the girls they once were in the older actors. This conceit opens up the frame of the play and gives it an epic perspective. We do not just see these characters; we see all women. The space too transforms. It is no longer just a dance studio. It becomes the “empty space” Peter Brook wrote about, resonant with archetypes. In such a space, I do not think it is too much of a stretch to see a correlation between the girls in Dance Nation and the chorus of dancing maenads in The Bacchae. Both plays pit rationality against animality. And in the same way that Dionysus’s disciples overwhelm and demolish the arrogant, passionless governor who would deny them, the dancers in Dance Nation give themselves over to a transformative artistic ecstasy that launches them into womanhood and renders inert, at least for now, the still unsubdued counter power of the patriarchy.