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New play examines the trials and travails of a preteen dance team in middle America.

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Tom Topinka

The summer before middle school, Maggie Roop's dreams of becoming a ballet dancer ended when she came down with mono.

From the ages of 4 through 11 she'd worked diligently in the hopes of becoming a classically trained professional dancer. But as mono swells the spleen and too much physical activity can risk rupture, Roop wasn't allowed to dance for a year. Though she continued to dance after she recovered, she could never fully regain the flexibility and agility that she'd achieved through years of effort.

"It was never quite the same," says Roop, who took home the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle Award for best actress in a play in 2016 for her work in "Venus in Fur" (Disclosure: Griset is a theater critic and the current president of the circle). "It was devastating, because I was very passionate about it."

It's a knowledge of the world of dance and the heartbreak it can entail that Roop brings to "Dance Nation," a new play taking the stage at TheatreLab's the Basement later this week. Written by Clare Barron, the Pulitzer finalist examines the trials and travails of a preteen dance team in middle America as it readies itself for national competition.

"It's about young girls in a pressure-cooker environment dealing with their own self-realization, and finding out through that extremely competitive and high intensity environment who they are and what they want to become," says Roop, the show's director. "Anybody who has a dance background is going to recognize a lot of the situations and scenarios that these girls find themselves in, how dance takes a toll on your body, how it affects your relationships."

Using adult actors, the show replicates the fevered thoughts and feelings of adolescence while touching on preteen explorations of sexuality and foul language.

"It is about girlhood and rites of passage in those critical moments in our lives," says Amber Marie Martinez, who plays the character Ashlee in the show. "There's nothing predictable about this show."

Though not a musical, the show includes full-fledged dance performances that have been created by choreographer Nicole Morris-Anastasi, who also plays the character Sofia in the show.

"This is legitimate dancing," Morris-Anastasi says. "That meant a lot more difficult dancing for people who aren't used to it. The really wonderful thing is that the cast has been so eager and so flexible and so willing to work hard."

Of the show itself, she says it's a deeper work that includes both the competitive nature and close friendships of preteen girls.

"'Dance Nation' is a wild ride," Morris-Anastasi explains. "It explores how chaotic things can be inside a preteen girl's head and inside her body — the hormone shifts, and the sexuality changes, and getting to know themselves physically and emotionally. It's something else."

Overall, Roop says she hopes audiences have a visceral reaction to what's portrayed onstage.

"They're going to laugh from the deepest recesses of their bellies, and hopefully they're going to want to cry and scream too," Roop says. "It's going to connect you again to who you were as a young person. That's a scary place to go."

Morris-Anastasi echoes Roop, saying that audiences should be prepared to react strongly to the show's subject matter.

"It's not just a fluffy play about teenage dancers," Morris-Anastasi says. "There might be some things that shock them, and there might be some things in the play that make them uncomfortable.

"Don't bring anyone under the age of 15 or 16. This is definitely not for kids."

TheatreLab's "Dance Nation" plays July 11 through Aug. 3 at the Basement, 300 E. Broad St. For information, visit theatrelabva.org or call 506-3533.

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