MFA Acting Thesis: 'Dance Nation' Runs On Delight, Shock, and Awe

BY Emily Johnson, January 11, 2022

You might not expect blood to be a recurring leitmotif in a show about a modern dance team of 13-year-olds, but Clare Barron’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize-finalist Dance Nation is unflinchingly visceral in its themes and imagery. At the Lenfest Center this past December, the play was performed with ravenous intensity by the MFA Acting Class of 2022. 


Their production of Dance Nation, directed by Colette Robert, doesn’t just appreciate the comedy of adolescent emotional turmoil, it exalts it. It celebrates the ferocity, excitement, shame, lust, anxiety, and ambition—concocts it into something weird, intoxicating, and deeply recognizable. 


The show follows a group of young Ohio dancers as they prepare for Nationals. Of the troupe, Amina (Stephanie Jeane) is acknowledged to be the best dancer, but Dance Teacher Pat (Nate Janis) gives the solo to something-to-prove Zuzu, played with quiet desperation by Saby Ramirez


The lead role becomes Zuzu’s personal tragedy—will she ever be as good as Amina? Can she live up to her own expectations, her mother’s, or her teammates’? As she relates in a heartbreaking monologue, all she wants is to make people feel things with her dancing, but she can’t seem to achieve what Amina can.


“She said that she liked it,” she says of her mother, who asked Zuzu to dance for her cancer recovery, “but…she didn’t cry.”


Amina is deeply conflicted. Zuzu is her friend, and she can’t stand to hurt her, and sometimes she even prays to lose. But deep down, she admits, she loves to win. In one of the best monologues of the night, Jeane delivers what is essentially Amina’s manifesto, a projection into the future: she will be the best, by never stopping. Jeane’s performance deftly flashes the muscle at the core of Amina’s sweetness. 


Ambition is part of what makes these characters so unique, even though dancing doesn’t mean the same thing to all of them. They are still full of passion, hunger, even bloodthirst. In some of the show’s more surreal sequences, the ensemble members writhe and gnash their teeth like a hoard of zombies, or they scream baroquely gruesome threats about the rival dance team they’re about to face off against (their routine, hilariously, is about Gandhi and non-violence.) 


The pitch of audience laughter in these scenes was equal parts horrified and giddy. The cast’s energy and commitment—whether dancing as chipper little sailors, practicing their dance faces, or debating masturbation in the dressing room—shock and charm their viewers into full engagement with their adolescent lunacy. 


Brigitte Thieme-Burdette as Ashlee navigates the uncomfortable, multifarious truths of her burgeoning sexuality in a monologue that begins, “I think I might be frickin’ gorgeous,” and “I wish I could show you my ass, but I’m only thirteen.” 


Thieme-Burdette delivers bluntness tinged with exhilaration. She declares that math isn’t actually hard, people just give up too easily. She’s going to get a perfect SAT score, become a surgeon, and a great poet. 


It’s a confession as well as a declaration; her sense of her power feeds itself into a frenzy, and Thieme-Burdette’s pronouncements are so confident that you believe her when she says “I am your god. I am your second coming. I am your mother and I’m smarter than you and more attractive than you and better than you at everything that you love and you’re going to get down on your knees and worship my mind, my mind and my body.”


The material requires each performer to make hairpin turns between vulnerability, childishness, and facing the unremitting approach of adulthood. Connie (Anita Abdinezhad) plays with toy horses, then slyly makes them have sex; Sofia's (Anne Guadagnino) reaction to her first period is heartwrenching devastation. These two share a scene late in the play, a projection into their young adult futures, the moment they will later realize they both struggle with depression. 


Damla Coskun as the oddball Maeve is an unexpected delight, bringing heart and encouragement to a despondent Zuzu. Her high-concept monologue about how she can literally fly, but one day won’t remember how, is enchanting and yet a sad acknowledgement of the effect reality can have on youthful dreams.


The concept of dance moms is so ubiquitous as to have garnered its own show, but in Dance Nation, all The Moms, played by Gillian Abbott, come in different styles. Abbott as Zuzu’s mom is the closest to the archetypal stage mom, demanding that Dance Teacher Pat give Zuzu more encouragement. Abbott also shifts easily to play the mild-tempered mom to Luke (Isaiah Dodo-Williams), the team’s only boy. 


Dodo-Williams, previously seen as the dignified Tesman in Hedda Gabler, sheds the gravitas of the Ibsen academic to inhabit a softer, younger energy, telling the audience how he loves the sleepy drives to and from dance class with his mom.

Dance Nation’s talented ensemble throws everything they’ve got into this wild, weird, blood-spattered pubescent phantasmagoria. It’s a searing, affirming shot of life to cut through the bleak midwinter. A recording of the production will be available to stream January 27–30, 2022. See more details online.