Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Dance Nation
San Francisco Playhouse
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of This Side of Crazy and Top Girls

Liam Robertson, Ash Malloy, Julia Brothers,
Bryan Munar, and Indiia Wilmott

Photo by Jessica Palopoli
Doesn't it just sound like the perfect thing to bring the kids to? Especially pre-teen girls? For Dance Nation (which opened this week at San Francisco Playhouse) is the story of a competitive youth dance troupe in the Midwest preparing for the contests that could lead them to a spot in the national finals in Tampa Bay. It will be filled with dancing and music and focus on the aspirations of the girls and how the discipline of dance will prepare them for facing the challenges their later life will bring. Right? Sure, there will likely be squabbles among the team, and clashing egos, and disappointments, but surely there will be an ultimate triumph at the end. Or at least a powerful lesson to be taken from a disappointing loss. Right??

Well, not exactly. Parents who ignore the warning on SF Playhouse's website ("Dance Nation contains locker room nudity, violence, profanity, and mature content.")—like the ones who attended a recent matinee performance and walked out partway through—should be prepared for massively profane rants, simulated masturbation, full frontal nudity, and frank (if immature) talk from 10-13 year-old kids (played by full-grown adults, some nearing their 60s) about sex. Oh, and plenty of blood, from various openings.

Shakespeare's line from As You Like It ("Sell when you can, you are not for all markets.") seems apt for this show. Despite what one of the critics quoted on the company's website says, this is not a show I think 13-year olds should see. It's not even for most 33, 43, or 63 year olds. While Clare Barron's play (which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) deals mostly honestly with the trials and stresses of life for kids engaged in highly competitive activities—dance, junior high, pre-teen friendships—it does so in such a way that what feels like the secret thoughts and fears most kids have but are too shy or embarrassed or afraid to express are put on full display. It is this ripping away of the fa├žade of innocence we often project on children on the cusp of sexual maturity that is noteworthy and laudable about Barron's text. It feels true, but it's a hard truth, the sort not a lot of audiences are in the mood for. It may trigger uncomfortable memories of our own pre-teen years and induce seat-squirming unease. (However, one glaring example of dishonesty is the way a dancer injured in an early scene is left alone on stage—that's just not how team dynamics work.)

There is inherent power in this sort of subject matter, but director Becca Wolff chooses to emphasize bluster and bravado over actual human connection. Her efforts are not helped by the unimaginative set created by scenic designer Angrette McCloskey—a hulking framework that calls to mind gyms and multi-purpose rooms, but its movement (via a turntable) is usually distracting and seems not to serve any real narrative purpose.

The situation isn't helped by uneven performances from a diverse cast. Indiia Wilmott plays Amina, the star dancer of the troupe, the one most likely to go on to a professional career, having been invited to study on scholarship at a prestigious Russian ballet company. Despite the fact that Wilmott does not have the prototypical ballerina physique, her tenderness to the other dancers and her confidence in her abilities, her humility despite her skills, and her easy way of carrying herself mean we can actually imagine her as a prima ballerina. As Maeve, the youngest of the dancers, Julia Brothers (who happens to be the oldest member of the cast) has a wide-eyed, bouncy, pre-teen energy that is undeniably charming. When she's up, she stands tall and her eyes burn with passion. But when she's down or embarrassed, she shrinks back like a little girl being scolded. But Liam Robertson's turn as Dance Teacher Pat feels strident and forced. His anger feels like a hat that just isn't the right shape for his head, and his attempts to inspire his charges sound like parodies of locker room speeches. (Though some of the blame for that must be laid at the feet of the playwright.)

Like the dances created by choreographer Kimberly Richards—which are purposely a little awkward and out of synch—the experience of Dance Nation left me feeling rather off-kilter myself.

Dance Nation runs through November 9, 2019, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $35-$125, available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.