Cast of “Dance Nation” at Mad Horse Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Battis Photography

Girls may want to have fun, as the old song goes, but they also want a whole lot more.

Mad Horse Theatre’s season closer raises questions about the wild and ferocious times of a group of adolescent dancers as they compete for a national title. As is often the case with Mad Horse productions, it’s quirky, edgy and a little unsettling in its details. At times, though, the play blossoms into a quite sensitive and funny piece of theater.

Clare Barron’s 2018 play “Dance Nation” wants playgoers to know that it’s not going to be easy for Amina, Zuzu, Luke, Ashlee, Sofia, Vanessa, Maeve and Connie in this mysterious and competitive world they are just beginning to fully experience. Constantly under surveillance from pushy teachers and anxious moms, they struggle physically and emotionally.

The dancers, all played by adults, are by turns awkward, self-absorbed, competitive, jealous, vulnerable, triumphant, affectionate and loveable. They each know they want something out of life, and they may eventually figure out what that is. The playwright’s occasional envisionings of their future lives suggest it won’t all be a breezy dance for them.

Given theatrical enhancements including fangs, face paint, and an occasional flow of bodily fluids of one sort or another (the play is for adults), the actors and director Lisa Muller-Jones let us visit the dancers’ world for perhaps what might seem just a little too long at two hours. But there is a lot to take in, in this busy show at the intimate, if slightly crowded, Mad Horse performance space in South Portland.

The choreography, by Kaylin Kerina, emphasizes the gyrations of youngsters still coming to terms with their bodies. The noise level can get a bit extreme during the dancers’ bursts of excitement. But there are quieter, moving moments of reflection when we get to know the characters individually.


In strong performances: Rumbidzai Mufuka, as Amina, alternates between the arrogance of a top dancer and the insecurity of someone who doesn’t want anyone to be mad at her. Allison McCall’s Ashlee overcompensates for her insecurities with precocious assertions of bodaciousness. Savannah Irish’s Maeve, inspired by an interest in wolves, snarls menacingly at the others but also imagines flying above it all.

Komal Redu, Janice Gardner, Noli French and Marie Stewart Harmon – with Harmon also playing more than one mom to the others – add a bit less intense but still compelling variations on youngsters in transition to the next phase in their lives. Robbie Harrison’s Luke, the lone boy in the troupe, wisely hangs to the periphery but has a nice moment on the road with his mother. Jared Mongeau’s dance teacher walks the line between obsessive and wacky as he tries to inspire the dancers with ideas about Gandhi.

Some sculptural projections, alcoves and columns add mythological connotations to a play that asks if the wild, dancing spirit of youth must inevitably succumb to the challenges of growing up.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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