Theater review

What were you doing at the perilous, ever-less-tender age of 13?

Whatever it was, I’m guessing the facts on paper don’t even begin to capture how full, promising and terrifying the world seemed at the time. Just getting through a week may have felt like an adventure worthy of our canonical 13-year-olds: Huckleberry Finn fleeing downriver with Jim; Juliet falling headlong into love and death; Hermione Granger fighting off evil wizards and obnoxious boys.

The 13-year-old girls (and one boy) of Clare Barron’s “Dance Nation,” produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre, live and sometimes nearly die for competitive dance. And there’s nothing cute about it.

Consider the brutal opening vignette: The Elite Pre-Teen Competition Squad of Liverpool, Ohio, performs a sweet, sailor-themed number and, for its finale, one girl lands the splits — getting a bloody compound fracture in the process.

“I landed funny,” the girl mews in pain, a femur jutting out of her thigh, as some unseen honcho barks to a stage manager: “Hey Miranda? Can you bring some paper towels?”

Then we’re whisked to the team’s dance studio (wonderfully rendered in vivid drabness, if you can imagine such a thing, by designer Tristan Roberson), where the emotionally dictatorial Dance Teacher Pat (Nik Doner, alternately pitiable and chilling) revs them up for the competitions ahead: Philadelphia; Akron, Ohio; the Boogie Down Grand Prix in Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey; all the way to naaaationaaaals! In! Tampa! Bay! Floooooooridaaaa!!

The girls live on a tightrope between moods that oscillate then erupt (docile-feral, anxious-arrogant, tender-vicious, empowered-despairing) and Barron invites us, sometimes cringing, into this secret kingdom of tweendom with two deft moves.

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First, she insists on diverse casting: ethnicities, shapes and, critically, ages. The “girls” look between early 20s and gray-haired, but don’t perform like adults pretending to be kids; their problems are “adult” problems. When Sofia’s period arrives at an inopportune moment, we believe her mortification, even though the actor (Marty Mukhalian) has been on Seattle stages for decades. (The liberal use of stage blood didn’t hurt.)

Second, Barron bends reality: The girls’ world is both banal (hairbrushes, dance shoes, water bottles) and magical (fangs, faces smeared with blood, group monologues chanted like witchy incantations), and “Dance Nation” sucks us between those two realms as if in a pneumatic tube.

Its hyperreality makes “Dance Nation” feel eerily realistic. One can imagine parents who’d never want actual 13-year-olds anywhere near the play — and just as easily imagine older sisters who’d smuggle in the younger generation for a look in the funhouse mirror.

Dance Teacher Pat (Nik Doner) and the always-second-best dancer Zuzu (Rheanna Atendido) in Washington Ensemble Theatre’s production of Clare Barron’s “Dance Nation.” (Jeff Carpenter)
Dance Teacher Pat (Nik Doner) and the always-second-best dancer Zuzu (Rheanna Atendido) in Washington Ensemble Theatre’s production of Clare Barron’s “Dance Nation.” (Jeff Carpenter)

Amina (Sofía Raquel Sánchez, the most convincingly tortured tween) is the best dancer, and kind of ashamed of it. Zuzu (Rheanna Atendido) is always second-best and ashamed of that, too. Luke (Mikey Flores) is the token boy, but doesn’t like to be reminded. Maeve (Maggie L. Rogers) is a mediocre dancer, but refreshingly shame-free.

And while Ashlee (Erin Bednarz) may not be anything in particular — not the best, worst, kindest nor cruelest — she becomes iconic with a surprisingly epic monologue. It begins simply, with her matter-of-factly telling us: “I think I might be frickin’ gorgeous. My ass, especially. Might be frickin’ gorgeous.”

It builds from there (her face, her breasts, her brains, the perfect score she’ll get on the SAT) into a towering, awesome ode to her own present and future power. The lights turn her into a colossal silhouette, the music becomes unnerving, as she transforms into a wrathful messiah. As if on Ashlee’s command, the opening-night audience gave her a round of applause.

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Several scenes later, she’s in a dressing room again, trying to express some fundamental, existential discomfort: “Is it always going to be like this? … I’m like turning into this giant scar, you know what I’m saying? But also I feel bad about everything I ever say and everything I ever do …”

Watching Ashlee unleash her will to power is unnerving and inspiring; her shriveling self-doubt is heartbreaking.

Directed by Bobbin Ramsey and Alyza DelPan-Monley, this “Dance Nation” doesn’t always maintain the power of its spell — at times, the girls’ world doesn’t feel quite as menacing or as magnificent as the script wants it to be. But Barron’s script is a tall order. And there are enough moments like Ashlee’s, and the haunting final seconds, to make “Dance Nation” worth it — even if you have to tell mom you’re taking your little sister (or brother) to the movies.

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“Dance Nation” by Clare Barron. Through Feb. 3; Washington Ensemble Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $15-$25; washingtonensemble.org