By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Women in society are often told to behave, to not assert themselves, if they want a seat at the same table as men. But, how different would society be if girls were encouraged to own their power, rather than hold it back?
This is just one of the questions posed by Dance Nation, the latest play by Clare Barron, which will close the 2019 season for barebones productions in Braddock.
A finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Dance Nation centers on a troupe of eight adolescent dancers, seven girls and one boy, putting together an act worthy of a national dance competition. Though each character is a teenager, they are portrayed by adult actors in several different age groups.
“The dancers in the show are played by actresses ranging in age from their twenties to several decades later,” says Patrick Jordan, founder and artistic director of barebones. “They’re all earnestly playing eleven, twelve, and thirteen year olds in this dance troupe.”
While training for a competition, the characters also deal with the many struggles of adolescence, from peer pressure, to developing sexuality, to self-actualization and empowerment.
“These dancers have more than choreography on their minds, because with every dance step, every plie, it’s a step toward finding themselves and a fight to unleash their power,” says Jordan. “You realize how much power a 13-year-old actually has. Is that gonna be squelched, is that gonna be squashed, or is that gonna be encouraged?”
Interspersed throughout the show are moments when one of the actors will become their character’s future self, reflecting on that time in their life.
“The playwright, Clare Barron, says it’s a play about thirteen years olds that are haunted by their future selves,” says director Melissa Martin.
When looking for future productions, Jordan had long been searching for a play by and about women, hoping to counteract male dominance in theater, as well as show off the talent in Pittsburgh. Dance Nation fit perfectly.
“I’ve been looking for a play to showcase the female actresses in the city for a long time, because there are so many amazing actresses,” says Jordan.
Jordan and Martin agreed Dance Nation was one of the hardest shows they’ve ever casted, because of the number of talented performers they saw.
“We could have cast this show three or four times over from the actresses that we saw,” said Martin. “It was the hardest task because they were all so good.”
“It’s the definition of an ensemble piece, everyone is really bringing it,” Jordan says. “Of the seven women in the cast, everyone brings something totally different to the table.”
Casting was not the only challenge to putting on Dance Nation. The size of barebones’ stage, which Jordan describes as a “postage stamp,” has made staging the dance numbers particularly challenging. Fortunately, choreographer Tome Cousin was up to the challenge.
“We have a wonderful choreographer in Tome Cousin,” says Jordan. “There are some people who have taken dance, and some who have never danced before, doing these dance numbers, and he was able to translate the language very easily.”
While centered on adolescents, parents interested in seeing Dance Nation will likely want to leave the kids at home, due to adult language and content, as well as brief nudity, throughout the play. But that is part of what makes Dance Nation so effective; it conveys the essence of teenage life in ways we can all relate to, no matter how old.
“The shocking and outrageous things that happen in this script are allegorically accurate representations of the internal struggle of a thirteen year old, and how funny, sad and touching we find it all to be,” said Martin.
“It’s poignant, it’s dirty, it’s funny, it gives you all the feels,” said Jordan.