Regional Reviews: Las Vegas
Dance Nation, The LABlv's latest production, might just jog your memory. Inspired by the phenomenon of pre-teen dance competitions and reality shows like "Dance Moms," Clare Barron's playa 2019 Pulitzer finalistdepicts adolescent girls experiencing self-discovery at perhaps the most critical time in their lives. In a crucial twist, the girls are played by adult women. However, there's no cute mimicry of childish voices, mannerisms or vocabulary. As a result, we simultaneously perceive the girls as children just starting to anticipate adulthood and also as grown-ups looking back at their past. The language can be shocking, and there are moments of surrealism.
In his dance studio in Liverpool, Ohio, Dance Teacher Pat (as he is always referred to) has visions of grandeur, based on the success of past teams and his greatest success of all: the legendary Sabina (whose name is always uttered with awe), who was spotted by talent scouts and, six years later, was dancing in the chorus of a Broadway show. On his wall are photographs of past teams that made it all the way to the national competition. There are no photos of the teams that failed. These are the two options he gives his students: win at nationals; or be forgotten. The choice is clear. Each of these young dancers is fiercely determined to win.
The team is preparing a new dancewith the lofty theme of "Gandhi"for the series of regional competitions that will culminate at nationals. Dance Teacher Pat torments the girls (and one boy) with a drawn-out audition process for the treasured role of Gandhi. After all this anxiety and pretense, of course, his grand homage to world suffering turns out to be typical competition fare, with clichéd "Indian" moves set ludicrously to pop music. But the team is all in, letting rip a bloodthirsty war cry before they take the stage to dance their way to world peace.
Director Kate St-Pierre has assembled a cast that is diverse in both age and ethnicity. Several are polished performers, most notably, the exemplary Darren Pitura as Dance Teacher Pat. While some of the others have a few rough edges, St-Pierre's direction gives each performer a solid opportunity to shine. As Ashlee, Destiny Nelson is electrifying when (lit by her teammates' smartphone flashlights) she ferociously announces the daring thoughts her young character fears to say out loud. Gigi Guizado is poignant as Maeve, convinced as a child that she can fly, and baffled that her older self could forget this. And Ruliko Cronin walks a fine line as Amina, torn between embracing her star potential and maintaining the bonds of friendship.
Sometimes it seems the play doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up. Is it a celebration of female power? An indictment of social pressures that undermine that power? Should we approve of Dance Teacher Pat for toughening the girls to life's harsh realities, or despise him for undermining instead of bolstering their self-esteem? Do we celebrate Amina for her relentless pursuit of success, or take a somber lesson from her solitude? Perhaps our confusion is part of the playwright's intent: growing up is messy, but fierceness is a girl's best friend.
Dance Nation, by The LABlv, runs through March 8, 2020, at The Playhouse, 528 S. Decatur Blvd., Las Vegas NV. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 8:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m., and Sunday at 5 p.m. For tickets ($20-$30) and further information, please visit www.thelablv.org.