Backstory: Smile for Me

By Lizzie Stern, Literary Assistant

In her Playwright’s Perspective, Clare Barron sheds light on the daily injuries the patriarchy inflicts on women. If you’re bold and assertive, then the world says you’re irritating, nagging, and shrill. If you’re shy or timid, then you’re small, weak, and pathetic. Needless to say, there are also more extreme examples of misogyny on display today (when I google “terrible things said about women,” the first six search results are from the President…), but the kinds of pervasive indignities that Clare illuminates have an immeasurable cumulative impact on women’s daily lives. It can be hard for women to know that we deserve things. It can be hard to know how to have power. It can be hard to know we can win. 

In Dance Nation, we meet a little army of adolescent girls who have the uninhibited ambition to win, but who are also poised on the threshold of a world that threatens to take that away. These girls dance like “bloodsucking robots.” We see their fangs when they smile. Vanessa dances so hard she breaks a femur. On the other hand, they’re already unsure if they’ll be totally allowed to embody any of this with confidence. Mid-pirouette, Ashlee looks straight out at the audience and, through her gnashing sharp teeth, asks: “What am I going to do with all this power?” If that question holds the relentless energy to move forward, it is also freighted with fear. She adds: “I hope I don’t pussy out.” 

One of the ingenious ways Clare teases out this tension is through casting. The dancers are all 12 to 14 years old, but the actors playing them range in age from their 20s to 60s (that’s the case in our production, though future casts could span ages 12 to 75). So we see them as children and as the women they’ll become one day. At no point can we forget the complications that lie ahead of them, or that their power foreshadows everything they stand to lose. I think, especially, about how one character, Maeve, can fly — and I don’t mean in her dreams, but really fly — and she does it over the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains. It’s hard to imagine a clearer, bolder image of strength and ability. But a minute later, she shares with us: “And one day I’ll forget that I ever used to fly. Because the truth is — I did. I did actually have the power to fly. Or to float, or whatever. But somehow, along the way I forgot about it. I forgot all about it. It was the coolest thing I ever did. And I forgot it.” As if haunted by her future self, Maeve simultaneously takes ownership of her superpower and understands all the ways her power might be crushed by the world she’s forced to live in. 

In this moment, Clare exposes our wildest ambitions and deepest fears and the fact that those opposites are really two sides of the same coin. She has a way of stripping us down to our most vulnerable humanity and the scariest questions about who we are, how we became that person, and who we will become next. 

Dance Nation insists we think about these questions in terms of gender. And there’s really no other way to do it — because, before we even start preschool, we’re assigned and participating in gender roles. As Judith Butler asks, in her 1990 book Gender Trouble, “Does being female constitute a ‘natural fact’ or a cultural performance?” The rules and borders of this performance are constraining for all, and unbearably excruciating for some. And what’s so spectacular about Dance Nation is that its characters can’t be boxed in — at least not entirely, not yet. None of them is a “type.” They’re all the smart one, the funny one, the competitive one, the supportive one, they’re all driven in part by an animalistic Id, they’re all self-possessed and vulnerable and messy and shifting and opening. Or, in a word, human. 

The primal energy that bursts from these minds and bodies is a duality — one that is forged from both the naivety of youth and the wisdom of experience, and from the energy of adolescence and the exhaustion of middle age. The critical theorist Mari Ruti writes about this kind of expansive, authentic humanity in her 2014 essay Happiness and its Discontents — about how we are our truest selves in moments of passion, risk, adventure, and the defiance of logic. She asks us to consider: “Why should our lives be cautious rather than a little dangerous? Might not the best lives be ones in which we sometimes allow ourselves to become a little imprudent or even a tad unhinged?” 

But women are and always have been harangued for being these things. So, we aren’t allowed to be ourselves. We aren’t allowed to be fully human. 

Clare’s rejection of those constraints is one of the reasons Dance Nation holds such profound resonance. Laying bare the raw humanity of her characters across the rich continuum of their lives, Clare throws down a gauntlet: she insists on a representation of women that is more multivalently human. And she invites all of us to be less bordered and restrained. More dangerous, imprudent, and unhinged. More like how we were when we were 13. Except with fangs.