‘Dance on the Lawn’ delights crowd in Montclair

Maurice Chestnut performs at Saturday's "Dance on the Lawn" festival in Montclair.

TONY TURNER

Maurice Chestnut performs at Saturday’s “Dance on the Lawn” festival in Montclair.

It rained on Saturday, but hardly anyone left to go home. The crowd watching “Dance on the Lawn,” an open-air festival in its second season at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair, was having too much fun.

Though the sky darkened and gusts of wind nipped at a canopy sheltering the sound equipment, viewers ignored these signs of an impending downpour. Mesmerized by the rapid-fire tapping of Maurice Chestnut, they remained stubbornly in place as the first drops fell; and when invited to move indoors, they filed into the parish hall damp, but not dispirited. You’d think the organizers were selling beer, but, no, they weren’t selling anything. This event produced and directed by dance-and-community booster Charmaine Warren was joyously free.

The show began in a relaxed, Saturday-afternoon style, with Julie Lyon Rose leading an “improv” session. Children in the audience shook their heads bashfully, refusing to be lured onto the makeshift stage, while one brave soul took the dare and landed on her bottom with a thump. Two teenagers rose and mirrored each other’s slender gestures. Then Nasha Thomas, a former Alvin Ailey star and “Dance on the Lawn’s” celebrity host, began to introduce the talent.

Students from local schools supplied a warm-up act, notably the ensemble from Sharron Miller’s Academy for the Performing Arts, in Montclair. Miller knows how to make her kids look good, and the choreography of her piece “Just Be You” flowed naturally, weaving together and opening up again, while making the dancers stand out as individuals. Nancy Turano’s “Spheres” deployed its 13 performers more formally, arranging these members of the New Jersey Dance Theatre Ensemble in tight layers or bunching them together. Tony Morales’ “For You” featured dancer Amanda Cray, from Andrea Kramer’s BalletForte, in a restless and off-kilter solo.

Named “Dance on the Lawn’s Emerging New Jersey Choreographer,” Robert Mark Burke received $1,000 and the chance to present his piece “The Dance Break.” Alive with the rambunctious energy of a sock-hop, this dance pauses to tell stories of adolescent heartbreak. In one episode, a boy pines for a girl who keeps her back turned to him — until she rushes into the arms of another. In a different thread, a girl flirts but then changes her mind and abandons the boy wooing her. Oh, those mixed-up kids. The choreographer has his head screwed on straight, however, and he describes these scenes with a minimum of fuss.

“Dance on the Lawn” also recruited some of Jersey’s most prominent dance artists. Chestnut waited to make his entrance in “Rhythm Rebels,” first watching to see if a small but feisty ensemble of four hoofers could handle his speed, and demonstrating how slickly he could manage this cool, slip-sliding group. Choreographer Donna Scro’s Freespace Dance presented excerpts from last year’s “Breath and Beat,” a weighted, sensual piece that Scro danced with three other women. And (once everyone was safely inside), a pair of hotshots from 10 Hairy Legs performed choreographer Stephen Petronio’s quirky and ingenious duet “Bud,” dodging the pillars and the balcony of the parish hall with no apparent difficulty.

AQURA LACEY

AQURA LACEY

The program also featured a sizable New York contingent, including Janis Brenner & Dancers in “Soul River/Blues,” a lovely ensemble piece with powerful lines and bodies that suddenly corkscrew, intricate tableaux and a melting duet couple. Rocking the house, dancer Aqura Lacey performed Darrell Moultrie’s extravagant solo “bouncing back,” swishing her hips and showing off her long legs. While occasionally alarmed and possibly skirting danger, this character’s can-do attitude and Moultrie’s resourcefulness allowed her to brush off challenges. Members of Ballet Hispanico’s junior team danced the show-stopping closer: a trio of sizzling duets excerpted from the main company’s repertoire. Regan Samson, Christopher Wilson, Nicole Nerup and Daniel Salas took turns as the whirling leads in “Tito on Timbales,” the entangled lovers of “Tango Vitrola” and the charging ballroom partners in “Club Havana.”

With artists like these on call, the rain didn’t stand a chance.

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