I Want to Heal the World Through Dance: “Dance Nation”

Schanaya Barrows as Ashlee (front), Alison Butts as Sofia, Paola Ferrer as Vanessa, Erik P. Kraft as Luke. Photo: Danielle Fauteux Jacques

Presented by Apollinaire Theatre Company & the Chelsea Theatre Works
Written by Clare Barron 
Directed by Danielle Fauteux Jacques 
Choreographed by Audrey Johnson
Dialect coaching by Christopher Sherwood Davis 

April 14-May 14, 2023
Chelsea Theatre Works
189 Winnisimmet St
Chelsea, MA 02150

Critique by Kitty Drexel

CHELSEA, Mass. — Being a girl isn’t for the faint of heart.  In Dance Nation, a troupe of girls prepare for a competition and young adulthood by pushing their bodies and personalities to the brink. Amina (Audrey Johnson), Ashlee (Schanaya Barrows), Connie (Srin Chakravorty), Maeve (Ann Carpenter), Sofie (Alison Butts), Zuzu (Katie Pickett), and Luke (Erik P Kraft) learn choreography and how to navigate society through the skills they learn in dance class.

They could take it all the way to Tampa – the ultimate competition for the ultimate trophy! Dance Teacher Pat (Dev Luthra) is their guiding light and their worst enemy. Paola Ferrera plays an assortment of dance moms and Vanessa, a dancer who should’ve known better. 

Playwright Barron unbalances the outward appearances of preteen girls with the absurdity of their inner experiences (and thereby revealing the truth of what it is to be born with a vagina in an adult man’s world) by throwing a psychotic curveball at the audience. These curveballs take the form of inconvenient period blood and monstrous impulses to self-harm. Occasionally, they take the form of sexual objectification by a most-trusted person mentor. Men might not recognize the truth in these psychotic breaks. I sure as heck did. 

We were seated in the nose bleeds for the performance. A magnetic “Truth or Dare” envelope dared me to sit in a spot I normally wouldn’t sit in so I had to sit in the nose bleeds. It’s girl code. Seated in the rafters, these absurdist moments with public menstruation and masochistic self-noshing didn’t pop into the audience with energy. Perhaps there wasn’t enough time, because the monologues delivered by those same characters reached past the audience into the stars. Energy and presence for days. 

These breaks which are truthful to the reality to girls but come unexpectedly in the play (whether it’s because adults willfully forget them or because adults hope to protect their children from their own experiences) are what catapult Dance Nation from a play with dance about the cultish American dance community to a play about the sexual burgeoning of preteen girls into vampirically sensual, omnipotent narcissists. Barron and director Fauteux Jacques give the actors the opportunity to play. It’s up to the actors to deliver the slayage. 

Speaking of power: all power to Fauteux Jacques for her lighting design but the lights up/lights down scene changes don’t work. They kill the momentum built by each scene. The actors must start building the energy again at the top of each scene.

The choreography by Audrey Johnson was delightful! The fancy dance at the top of the show had more charm than it had any right to have. Each cast member lined up at the lip of the stage with a spotlight on their face and mugged to the music. Their bodies remained still while their faces performed extensive choreography. It wasn’t acting; it was facial choreography. 

Audrey Johnson as Amina, Schanaya Barrows as Ashlee, Katie Pickett as Zuzu. Photo: Danielle Fauteux Jacques

Johnson utilized the abilities of her fellow cast members to show off their strengths without revealing their weaknesses. Then, she got to show off a little too. Johnson’s dancers looked like they were having a fun time, with minimal stress for a show about dancing without dancers. It tells us that Johnson is a thoughtful, respectful choreographer and actor. Boston needs more of those. 

My sincere apologies to Apollinaire Theatre Company and the brilliant cast and crew of Dance Nation for the brevity of this critique. It’s a strange time to be writing critiques: queer people are losing personhood, persons with uteruses are losing rights, US politicians care more about access to guns than they do the safety of children. Our local theatre community lost two beloved members in a week. 

Your art matters. Your presence matters. If you identify as a woman or a girl, then you are one. You are welcome here. You are beloved. Don’t let the Dance Teacher Pats of the world tell you that your worth is conditional. Find the community that values you. There is simply no time to waste on being anyone other than your best self.  

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