A group of high school students was sitting in front of me during Clare Barron’s Dance Nation. They tittered uncontrollably when the characters stripped off their clothes or simulated menstruation and masturbation. They couldn’t contain their gleeful “oh no’s!” and other, more profane exclamations. An elderly couple had a different reaction. When Sofia (Ash Malloy) smeared menstrual blood across her face, they got up and walked right out of the theater. Barron’s work did have provocative moments like that but, like Judy Blume’s YA novels, they belong in the story she’s trying to tell.
Dance Nation makes more sense if you think of it as a series of short stories rather than as a play with a beginning, middle and a tidy end. Barron briskly flashes sharp insights about adolescent girls before moving on to the next scene and the one after that. She doesn’t dwell on character development or plot. And, despite the appearance of a long shelf of trophies suspended in the background, this isn’t a reboot of a high school competition like the one in Bring It On (2000) or Glee. The girls here are on a dance team but we watch them rehearsing with each other more often than competing against other teams. Barron wisely chooses to focus the audience’s attention on their interactions instead of on a triumphant victory or dismal failure at some regional championship.
The one recurring symbolic theme is the arrival of blood, menstrual or otherwise. Dance Nation opens with Michelle Talgarow falling down with a broken, bleeding leg. Her fall is played for laughs — no one wants to help her up — and gets the actress out of having to dance again. Talgarow then transitions into the multiple roles of being every girl’s mom. Later, Zuzu (Krystle Piamonte), who’s nervous before an audition, bites into her own arm to calm herself down. She dances with blood drying on her forearm and around her mouth.
Poor Sofia’s period starts right before a dance routine, while she’s wearing an all-white outfit. She turns her initial embarrassment into a tribal rite. With her own blood marking her face, Sofia stands tall and howls. She’s a warrior girl ready to do battle with the world. With Maeve (Julia Brothers) however, it was unclear why we could see her prop, the vial of fake blood, and what it was meant to indicate. Brothers emptied the red liquid into her mouth and also let out a howl.
Regardless, by then Barron had made her empowering point. Girls shouldn’t be ashamed of their bodies or of their blood. A naked locker room scene feels less prurient because the “girls” are actually played by women of various ages. And because the director Becca Wolff aims for a naturalistic scene rather than the titillating, slow-motion open of a film like Brian De Palma’s Carrie. The nudity may have caused the high schoolers to groan out loud but Wolff ensured that the actresses weren’t just taking off their clothes. They were asked to convey nakedness as an emotional and physical state of vulnerability.
What also distinguishes Dance Nation from a play is the lack of a central or singular conflict. Amina (Indiia Wilmott) is the most talented dancer on the team. In an uncharacteristic move, their coach, Dance Teacher Pat (Liam Robertson), chooses Zuzu to be the lead in the new routine. When she falls in the middle of a performance, Amina steps in and finishes the dance in her place. Zuzu doesn’t confront her about it later. This exemplifies Barron’s episodic approach to the team. She provides a glimpse of each girl’s concerns and then circles around someone else.
It’s probably for the best that the couple left when they did. Dance Nation concludes with a chant in honor of the pussy. If they couldn’t take a little bit of fake period blood, a group rallying cry about fierce pussies would have been just as likely to send them home. Barron, and her ending, might owe something to Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues but she comes across as a grateful, righteous and rightful heir.
Dance Nation, through Nov. 9, at S.F. Playhouse, 450 Post St. $35-$125; 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org