At some point, being an artist involves facing the fact that you’ll never fully fit in with regular people. Maybe our regular towns just aren’t big enough to hold our enormous ambition; maybe we’re too full of ourselves.
In the case of Tina Satter’s sweet mini-play “House of Dance”, the small town constraints come in the form of a rinkydink tap-dancing lesson. As to be expected from Satter’s hilarious girly-grrrl performance company Half Straddle, she packs a lot of wit and big personality in a scrappy, school-musical-inspired set. The dancers are a band of Napoleon Dynamite-like misfits: angsty, brooding high school student Lee; his intense, but fatherly instructor Brendan; sardonic, Vaudeville-esque pianist Joel; and an adult woman Martle who often tries to sneak into the lesson, only to be swatted back by Brendan. The play is more or less a steady chorus of their bickering.
As part of the current “American Realness” festival at Abrons Art Center, Satter’s vision of Americans is as a juvenile, but ambitious, people. As though caught in a permanent state of teen angst, dancers pace the stage, constantly shedding outfits along with personas and dance routines. For the androgynous student Lee, aspirations are pinned on his search for the “perfect, awesome” outfit, for the upcoming “Teen Tap Dance Roadshow”. Outfits are also something to fight over. Martle won’t stop muttering about her pale pink onesie– which, it’s revealed through a smooth slo-mo sequence, Joel has smuggled inside his bench cushion.
While their own self-consciousness mostly gets the best of them, the dancers’ struggle for suaveness is punctuated by painful moments of isolation. Lee can’t seem to get a ride home, as he reads text messages: “My stepfather. I’m not running a limo service.” The window behind him reveals a backdrop of winter dusk light, where other classmates might be hanging out with friends or cheering on a football game.
So we’re all the more hopeful when the group occasionally pulls their act together. In one glorious burst of spontaneity, a remix of “Hey Big Spender” blasts overhead— and all at once, with coordinated outfits, they dance together in perfect step. For a moment, it’s a glimpse of awesome. The dancing isn’t particularly dazzling; it’s just exciting to watch people coordinate their skill.
But this team is not meant to be, and inevitably the group once again pulls apart. This seems to be Satter’s conceit. She leaves us with Lee, standing alone and looking beyond the audience, toward his future unknown. As he turns away from the group, it’s as though he’s briefly at peace with the understanding that his role, for now, is not belonging.
That revelation elevates the piece above the light-hearted pluckiness, but Satter’s getting at something here that doesn’t quite scratch the core. “House of Dance” is very good. But like those years of adolescence, I walked away ready for a harder, and less wide-eyed look at the world.