'Dance Nation' Is A Play That 'Demands To Be A Play'

Sep 10, 2019

“It’s crazy,” says director Jenny Lavery of the new comedy Dance Nation, which is having its regional premiere at the Long Center this month. “The playwright [Clare Barron] is pushing form and content in a way that I have never seen before."

“I think this play … demands to be a play in a very real way," she says. "It’s different [from] a lot of scripts that I read lately, which are so cinematic and wanting to be film and TV. This one’s not. This one’s crazy.”

Barron’s script may be crazy, but it also won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and The Relentless Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer. The play debuted at Playwrights Horizons in New York and was produced in London before being staged in Austin by the Long Center and Theatre en Bloc.

“The interesting thing about this play is that it’s like a layer cake,” Lavery says. “So we’re always seeing a version of reality. It is about a competition dance team – they’re 11 to 13 years old – played by adults that are 18 to 75 years old. So the intention there is that it’s a ghost play, so we’re always sort of seeing either the spectre of what these people are going to become or what they once were.”

Amy Downing, who plays Amina, says that she did a little bit of dancing as a kid herself. “I was a dancer, but I was not that good,” Downing says. “I was like at the … second-tier dance studio. But I was very obsessed with dance and obsessed with ballet even though I knew I was never going to make it professionally.”

“For me, with this show, it’s been really wonderful to dance in this form, within the world of the play,” says Sarah Danko, who plays Zuzu. “Because it’s so charged with … what the character is feeling, and I was never confident enough in myself to dance.”

Lavery says that the production isn’t really meant to feature professional-quality dancing. “The playwright actually asks for non-dancers to be in the piece,” she says. “She’s not really intending for it to be this super-polished thing.”

Still, the play asks its non-dancers to do a lot of dancing. “There’s a tap number, there’s an acro lyrical number, there is a number. ... I don’t know how to describe,” Lavery says. “And then there’s a face ballet.”

Dennis Bailey, who plays Dance Teacher Pat, says he understood the character very well.

“I worked on Broadway with Michael Bennett, with Michael Peters, with Gower Champion… with a lot of these guys, and I know who they are,” Bailey says. “And I also know the guys who ended up just going in a bus-and-truck company of something and ended up starting a studio back home, because after a certain age you can’t dance anymore. So what you do is you go and open a little studio in a small town.”

Lavery says that the play’s about a dance company, but it’s not really just about dance. “The dance is really a vehicle to look at the messiness of growing up,” she says. “And the messiness off what it means to be a woman growing up in this country, and how we’re taught to be polite and demure behavior is really praised. And this play is really looking at, ‘No, what if—at my thirteen-year-old self – what if I really did own the power that I have? And what if I really did own how beautiful I was and how smart I was and really take up the space that I want to be taking up?'”

'Dance Nation' is onstage through Sept. 15 at the Long Center.