In Olney’s “Dance Nation”, the exuberance and pitfalls of adolescence

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Clare Barron’s “Dance Nation” Ohio college kids don’t take their art lightly. “I want to heal the world through dance,” they sing in preparation for one of their competitive dance team routines. They long for their clogs to somehow eliminate racism, end pet homelessness, and cure cancer. Going to Florida for nationals would also be nice.

Heard at the start of Olney Theater Center’s funny, poignant, and sometimes volatile production, directed by Jenna Place, the song suggests the complexity of the teenage experience that Barron captures. The girls (and one boy) on the team are mature enough to grasp the planet’s woes, but they’re also inexperienced enough to dream that a few side kicks and jumps could make the difference. Above all, they live in a pressure cooker that is partly chosen, partly adult-inflicted, and partly intrinsic to puberty and the growing process.

A 2018 off-Broadway hit, “Dance Nation” follows young troupes as they deal with that pressure: auditioning, competing, battling rivalry and disappointment, and letting off steam. It’s an often moving, but also comical portrait, exploring the incongruous collisions of childish and adolescent energies, and wickedly satirizing competitive school dancing. With Olney, the mix between comedic and empathetic moments doesn’t seem entirely seamless. But spirited performances and Nikki Mirza’s flawless choreography sweep the show for 105 minutes.

Adding interest, as the action unfolds on designer Paige Hathaway’s fitting dance studio set, the cast mirrors Barron’s directive that performers of all ages portray the young characters. The device reminds us how deeply adolescence marks our later lives.

Often surrounded by his delighted but restless students, dance teacher Pat (Michael Wood) is a fanatic who saddles up his team with a choreographed tribute to Gandhi. The talented Amina (Jasmine Joy, layering vulnerability and poise) is most likely to play the lead role, but equally perennial Zuzu (Ashley D. Nguyen) also covets the lead role, pushed by her mother (Yesenia Iglesias ). En route to a team crisis, Zuzu proves to be doubtful but resilient: at one point, in a mysterious and pungent touch, she seems to grow her fangs.

Each young character holds the limelight for at least one telltale beat. For example, in a gripping monologue, Ashlee (Brigid Cleary, stage owner) raves about her looks and intelligence, before confessing, “I never tell anyone that. …I want to bury it deep. It’s a discourse that seems to explore and push back the confidence deficit that can plague modern women.

Meanwhile, Sofia (sometimes a little too comedic Megan Graves) craves sexual precocity but by default innocence, as when she ceremoniously stirs mouthfuls of sugar into coffee to do what she calls the “magic”. Young people channeled by Louis E. Davis, Shubhangi Kuchibhotla and MaryBeth Wise have their own loves and quirks.

Pivot throughout is Mirza’s choreography for the audition and competition scenes: deliberately screaming movements, grafted together in a jerky fashion. The characters launch into these routines with unflinching enthusiasm. From our point of view, the effect is hilarious and a bit inspiring.

dance nation, by Claire Barron. Directed by Jenna Place; assistant director, Nikki Mirza; costumes, Moyenda Kulemeka; lighting, Sarah Tundermann; sound, Kenny Neal. 105 minutes. Tickets: $64 to $84. Through October 30 at the Olney Theater Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org.

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