From the get-go, the wildness and weirdness of Steppenwolf’s “Dance Nation” makes space for messy contradictions. If you’re hoping that this cast will dance your problems away: they will, as long as you’re also willing to lean into big conversations about power, privilege and patriarchy. Clare Barron writes without holding back, from quiet, private moments of connection to broad dance numbers that feel almost ritualistic. Spending time with a team of thirteen-year-old dancers as they try to make sense of the world is as hilarious and horrifying as you would hope for it to be.
In “Dance Nation,” perfectionism is brutal and violent. Zuzu’s mom (the very funny Audrey Francis) begs Dance Teacher Pat (Tim Hopper) to consider his influence as he threatens the shameful possibility that the girls will be the only team since 1996 to not make the classroom wall, while simultaneously and paradoxically fostering the belief that they must choose between talent and community. Barron (with help from Caroline Neff as Zuzu, Karen Rodriguez as Amina, and the rest of this talented ensemble) clearly illustrates how young girls are taught to self-destruct, to fear being separated from the pack when they are unapologetically good at things.
In the vulnerable in-between of adolescence, these dancers are so susceptible and also so powerful in a way that might seem delusional in the hands of a less capable writer and team. While these kids have met the world and already been affected by it, they are also in an extraordinary period of discovery: less jaded than their older counterparts and radically unwilling to accept the patriarchal, societal limitations that are imposed on them, even if they don’t yet know what all of that means. They are innocent and wise, sexual and not. They can’t wait to see who they will turn out to be and they hope they won’t forget who they are. Under Lee Sunday Evans’ direction, they break my heart and give me hope at the same time.
As the piece goes on, it becomes more and more challenging to make meaning of its weirdness. While I’m still game, for the most part, and the play has earned my attention, there are critical moments when intention is lost, particularly when female genitalia becomes a stand-in for feminine power. In our still-cis-normative theatrical landscape, I want our bold, unapologetic and otherwise radically inclusive feminist plays to consider how they might be centering the experience of cis-women to the exclusion of others who might absolutely find a home in this play.
Barron has told the truth here, provocatively and powerfully, joyfully and seriously. I hope we continue to see work like this on Chicago stages. (Erin Shea Brady)
Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted, (312)335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $20-$94. Through February 2.