Though woefully late in filing, I was heartened and impressed, as well as moved, by Clare Barron’s strikingly imaginative new play, Dance Nation, running through July 1 at Playwrights Horizons. A sort of preadolescent, pre-professional rethinking of A Chorus Line, Dance Nation follows the adventures of a troupe of small-city dancing kids, ages eleven to fourteen, as they prepare for a series of competitions that move up the ladder of national fame, the tension among the team heightening as the contests progress. Aside from their dance teacher–choreographer (Thomas Jay Ryan) and their mothers (all represented touchingly by Christina Rouner), the characters are in a no-longer-childish but not-yet-adolescent age range. Barron and her director, Lee Sunday Evans, have them played by adult actors, of varying ages, shapes, and sizes. The acting style is straightforward, with no self-consciously cute attempts to mimic child behavior — just kids as people, speaking frankly and being themselves.
One of the youngsters, Luke (Ikechukwu Ufomadu), is a boy, yet Dance Teacher Pat consistently addresses his charges as “girls” or, occasionally, “ladies,” without comment. One girl (Rouner again) is injured in the opening sequence — one of many specific recollections of Chorus Line — and disappears from the group. The main narrative thread focuses on the friendly rivalry between Amina (Dina Shihabi; currently being replaced by Layla Khosh), an exceptionally gifted dancer (as Shihabi herself duly proves to be), and Zuzu (Eboni Booth), whose determination and total passion for dancing can somehow never quite make her more than second-best. Booth, one of our major young talents, is utterly heartbreaking in this part; the contrast between her vulnerable eagerness and the airy ease with which Shihabi floats through her role is one of many signs of the care and knowingness that have gone into Evans’s production. (Evans did the choreography as well, for which she deserves an extra round of applause, for giving a smart, tenderly sincere vision of dances only a troupe-member’s parent could love.)
The story’s single thread never gets monotonous because Barron attacks it from a variety of angles, impressionistically weaving the Zuzu-versus-Amina debate into scenes of the young dancers in their dressing room or on the way home from class, trading talk about everything from pets to power aspirations to early glimmerings of sexuality. (“Luke,” they call into the boys’ dressing room next door, “don’t listen!”) Barron employs abstract intrusions, too — bits of chanted poetry that underscore the importance of dance in the girls’ lives and their dawning feminist awareness. The evening concludes with an assertive chant in praise of “pussy power” recited by everyone onstage, male actors included. Far from making Dance Nation seem message-y or monolithic, these fragments simply join the multiplicity of angles from which the girls are being viewed, like political leaflets scattered among the other ephemera pasted into a schoolgirl’s scrapbook: This is when the dance teacher yelled at me; this is when my mom made me nervous; this is when I started to think about feminism.
Barron’s dialogue consistently catches the ear and provokes the mind. Bravely, she pushes the edges of the story toward absurdity — and then dares us to laugh. The new piece Dance Teacher Pat has created for his pre-teen team is about Gandhi, and the idea of these vulnerable, febrile children using their bodies to explain the great exponent of satyagraha in order to win a competition in Akron or Tampa would, in coarser hands, inspire nothing but a cheap snicker. The utter dignity and sincerity with which Barron and her executants treat it gives it the stature of one of those grotesque details that heightens the validity of a great novel.
In similar fashion, Barron pushes the center of her story toward pathos while firmly holding its line against sentimentality. Though Zuzu gets a leading role, she does not score a star’s triumph, while Amina does. But the events that cause this, and its aftermath, are presented from a clinical yet compassionate perspective: no tear-jerking, no little-girl-blue wallowing in emotion. Any heartbreak you may feel comes from the careful understatement with which the story is told. Barron won a 2015 Obie Award for her previous play, You Got Older, whose emotional effects are calibrated with a similar delicacy. That she won the Susan Smith Blackburn Award for Dance Nation surprises me not at all: She has taken a topic of enormous potential touchiness from a woman’s point of view and produced a statement on it which is straightforward, unpropagandizing, and beautifully fresh. It has the seemingly artless quality — which must have taken careful and patient work — of a living creature, not a manufactured object.