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

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The Ohio middle-schoolers of Clare Barron’s “Dance Nation” don’t take their art lightly. “I want to heal the world through dance,” they chant to rev themselves up for one of their competitive-dance-team routines. They yearn for their hoofin’ to somehow eliminate racism, end pet homelessness and cure cancer. Getting to Florida for nationals would also be nice.

Heard early in Olney Theatre Center’s funny, poignant and occasionally tonally unsettled production, directed by Jenna Place, the chant suggests the complexity of the adolescent 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 callow enough to dream that some kicks and side aerials might make a difference. Above all, they’re living in a pressure cooker that is part chosen, part adult-inflicted and part intrinsic to puberty and the process of growing up.

A hit off-Broadway in 2018, “Dance Nation” follows the young troupers as they cope with that pressure: auditioning, competing, grappling with rivalry and disappointment, and letting off steam. It’s a portrait that is often moving, but also comic, exploring incongruous collisions of childish and adolescent energies, and wickedly satirizing school-age competitive dance. At Olney, the mix between comic and empathic moments doesn’t feel entirely seamless. But vivid performances and Nikki Mirza’s pitch-perfect choreography sweep the show along for a brisk 105 minutes.

Adding interest, as the action unfurls on designer Paige Hathaway’s apt dance-studio set, the cast reflects Barron’s directive that performers of a range of ages embody the young characters. The device reminds us how deeply adolescence imprints on our later lives.

Often encircled by his rapt yet fidgety students, Dance Teacher Pat (Michael Wood) is a zealot who saddles his team with a choreographed tribute to Gandhi. Likeliest to star is the talented Amina (Jasmine Joy, nicely layering vulnerability and aplomb), but perennial also-ran Zuzu (Ashley D. Nguyen) also covets the lead role, egged on by her mother (Yesenia Iglesias). En route to a team crisis, Zuzu shows herself to be self-doubting yet resilient: At one point, in a piquant mysterious touch, she seems to grow fangs.

Each young character holds the spotlight for at least one revelatory beat. For instance, in a striking monologue, Ashlee (Brigid Cleary, owning the stage) rhapsodizes about her own looks and smarts, before confessing: “I never say this stuff to anybody. … I want to bury it down deep.” It’s a speech that seems to explore, and push back against, the confidence deficit that can plague modern women.

Meanwhile, Sofia (Megan Graves, sometimes a little too broadly comic), aspires to sexual precocity but defaults to innocence, as when she ceremoniously stirs gobs of sugar into coffee to make what she calls “magic.” Youngsters channeled by Louis E. Davis, Shubhangi Kuchibhotla and MaryBeth Wise have their own loves and quirks.

Pivotal throughout is Mirza’s choreography for the audition and competition scenes: deliberately garish moves, joltingly grafted together. The characters throw themselves into these routines with full-throttle enthusiasm. From our perspective, the effect is hilarious, and a little inspiring.

Dance Nation, by Clare Barron. Directed by Jenna Place; assistant director, Nikki Mirza; costumes, Moyenda Kulemeka; lighting, Sarah Tundermann; sound, Kenny Neal. 105 minutes. Tickets: $64-$84. Through Oct. 30 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org.

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