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‘Dance Nation’ Review: Feral Doesn’t Even Begin to Cover It

Apollinaire Theatre Company's production of "Dance Nation"
Apollinaire Theatre Company's production of "Dance Nation" By Courtesy of Danielle Fauteux Jacques
By Sophie H. Kim, Crimson Staff Writer

“Feral” doesn’t even begin to cover it. “Feral” is the kind of word used by Gen Z TikTok creators to describe scurrying out of your room at 2 A.M. to scarf down leftover Kraft Mac & Cheese and wallow in your own shame. But in Apollinaire Theatre Company’s production of “Dance Nation,” a play written by Clare Barron and directed by Danielle Fauteux Jacques that runs from April 14 to May 14, “feral” becomes an inadequate, almost cute descriptor for what’s happening onstage. And, as Barron writes, “Cuteness is death.” The play, which follows a group of pre-teen competitive dancers as they plan to win competitions and enact (possibly literal) world domination, is both an animalistic, violent declaration of girlhood, and a sweet, melancholy exploration of what it means to grow old, but never really grow up.

Set in an unspecified town in America, “Dance Nation” follows a group of 13-year-old dancers trying to get to Nationals in Tampa Bay, Florida. The dancers (all girls, except one boy) grapple with puberty, hyper-competitiveness, and the literal monstrosity of growing up. The play focuses on three dancers — Amina (Audrey Johnson), the teacher’s pet; Zuzu (Katie Pickett), earnest but always falling short; and Ashlee (Schanaya Barrows), outspoken and confident — and explores what happens when young people on their own paths inevitably collide.

“Dance Nation” puts these girls’ struggle to gain confidence front and center. Some characters own their sexuality. For example, Ashlee’s monologue starts off with “I think I might be frickin’ gorgeous / My ass, especially / Might be frickin’ gorgeous / I wish I could show you my ass but I’m only 13.”

Moments like these ask the audience: What are 13-year-old girls “allowed” to say or do? Of course, 13-year-olds think about having (or not having) “gorgeous asses.” But is seeing someone say this out loud uncomfortable? Why? Ashlee’s later descriptions of being catcalled feel, perhaps, more familiar. But is it because we are more used to seeing people sexualize young girls than seeing these same girls sexualize themselves?

Exceptional casting is a crucial component of the play’s success. Even though the cast is made up of pre-pubescent dancers, the cast includes a broad range of ages, from young adults to senior citizens. This creates a sense of eerie traversing through time. The audience has the sense that they are watching women (and one man) who grew old, but never grew up. When Zuzu’s mother yells at Dance Teacher Pat (Dev Luthra), the dancers’ demanding coach, for tearing down her daughter’s self-confidence, we see Zuzu, a grown woman, watching her mother try (and fail) to advocate for her. This raises the question: As we age, when do our parents stop fighting for us? When dancers eagerly try to perfect their choreography under Dance Teacher Pat’s criticism or bow their heads in shame when they make a mistake, the audience is left wondering: Does the desire to please others ever go away?

The set, lighting, and sound design are unexcessive and grotesque, evoking demonic liminal spaces and bright competition halls within a seemingly average pink and purple dance studio. On a scale from 1 to 10, sound design dials the stakes up to 11: Epic, soaring vocals and a driving beat reminiscent of Olympics victory music show us that these girls’ goals are writ large in their minds, but that adults are unable to understand their desires for validation through glory.

The attention to detail in costumes is striking. Zuzu wears a dark velvet zip-up jacket with a sunburst of rhinestones — think the Juicy Couture tracksuit craze of the early 2000s. It’s exactly the kind of cutesy, girly, slightly tacky jacket a 13-year-old would love. Touches like these allow characters to inhabit youth without ever feeling like they are wearing a costume, while also pointing to the experience of being a young girl learning to dress yourself (with mixed success).

The play’s themes are best encapsulated in one detail: a cluster of cheap plastic trophies, standing quietly on a shelf. They remain there throughout the show, a not-so-subtle reminder of the pressure placed on the young dancers to be a specific kind of best: Hyper-feminine but nonsexual, immune to things like an unexpected period before a competition or rabid competitiveness that turns your teeth into fangs. In a play where fantastical elements are a way of exploring freedom, the limits of hyper-realism are chilling. When the blood and fangs disappear, are these trophies the only thing that are real? Apollinaire Theatre Company’s production of “Dance Nation” will leave audiences wondering how childhood affects them today, and how monstrosity might just be a form of liberation.

—Staff writer Sophie H. Kim can be reached at

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