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REVIEW: Dance Nation at York University

12 cast members on stage wearing flowy dresses and pants in whites, oranges, and greens. Hands spread out or together about their heads. iPhoto caption: Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh
/By / Apr 1, 2023

Want a thought-provoking, soul-stirring, hip-shaking night at the theatre? Head uptown. 

Some of the best theatrical work in Toronto right now is happening inside the concrete walls of York University’s School of Arts, Media, Performance, and Design. Their electric production of Clare Barron’s Pultizer-shortlisted Dance Nation is well-choreographed, well-directed, and supremely well-acted. Director Anita La Selva has clearly seen her fair share of reality show Dance Moms — more on that later — but at no point does the production feel derivative, soapy, or outdated. It’s just a damn good production of a damn good play.

Dance Teacher Pat is a monster — or maybe he means well? — with clear-as-day favourites and a harsh tongue. He’s coaching his competitive dance team for Nationals in Tampa Bay, and he has his work cut out for him. This is a group of girls (or is it women? Barron leaves it ambiguous) who pirouette into monologues about abuse, and then tumble right into immature protestations of love for their toy horse collections. This elite, placeless dance team wanders in and out of childhood, navigating all the hallmarks of adolescence (First period! First orgasm! First sexual fantasy!) while chasing the ultimate goal that is a solo at Nationals.

And oh, what a solo it is: Mahatma Gandhi. 

There’s a season three episode of Dance Moms in which a nearly all-white group of Pittsburgh tweens auditions for the role of Rosa Parks. Given there’s one Black girl on the team, one would think the casting is obvious. Surprisingly, no, it’s not. (It’s a great episode.)

And so it goes here — Barron’s play echoes that specific episode, as well as other tropes of Dance Moms, several times. There’s a girl on Dance Teacher Pat’s team, Connie, who’s a talented (and racially appropriate) dancer for the role, but competition amongst the team is fierce. Especially when it comes to girls like Amina, who’s stunningly good and just a tad bit neurotic. And, of course, Zuzu, who’s used to coming in second despite her obsessive desire to overcome the things holding her back. She wishes her dancing could cure her mom’s cancer, she tells us — it’s a good representation of just how badly she wants to succeed in this art form.

Dance Nation is the perfect university show, with a large ensemble in which there are truly no small parts. La Selva’s gone even further and double-cast many of the roles, including Dance Teacher Pat, Amina, Zuzu, and Ashlee, who at thirteen is “smarter than you” and fully aware of her “amazing” ass and tits. I saw Cast A on opening night. Rachel Cucheron captures the anxiety and arrogance of Amina with grace and grit, a masterful performance. Zoe Cason’s Zuzu, too, is nuanced, thoughtful, and impeccably danced. And Mercedes Clunie’s Ashlee beautifully walks the line between funny and terribly sad; her character feels like Dance Nation in miniature, all the sharp commentary and humour distilled into one teen on the cusp of the rest of her life.

Anoshinie M’s choreography is tonally appropriate and a joy to watch — some of the gestures are almost camp in their cliché, steps seen on every competition dance stage in North America, and yet in the context of Dance Nation, that choice totally works. Heather Theriault’s costume designs, too, feed in well to Barron and La Selva’s respective visions: this is not a play about adolescents, it’s a play about adults playing adolescents, and Theriault’s willingness to lean into the curves, panty lines, and imperfections of young women approximating children is just perfection. Kudos too to La Selva’s choices in music — Dance Nation is perhaps the best context for The Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons” since the early 2000s.

Clare Barron’s play speaks to anyone who’s ever been, parented, or loved a teenage girl. (And no, I’m not laying on the praise thick because York’s was a student production — if elements needed work in Dance Nation, I’d say so.) Dance Nation at York U embodies the liminal complexities of womanhood through dance, laughter, and remarkable poise. A total delight.

Dance Nation closed at York University on April 1. For more information, click here.

Aisling Murphy

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, NEXT Magazine, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.



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