Dancers frolicking outdoors on a sunny afternoon are a welcome sight. Returning to a stage erected outside St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair, on Sept. 11, the Dance on the Lawn Festival (see video below) offered visions of freedom and grace, while reminding us of humanity’s endless potential for renewal. What a gift!
The eighth installment of this annual event, curated by Charmaine Warren, also offered a rare sighting of a duet from the late Merce Cunningham’s “Landrover” — a bona fide masterpiece — on a program featuring a variety of contemporary dance groups and student ensembles. Danced by Chalvar Monteiro and Jacquelin Harris of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, “Landrover” was a knockout.
Another highlight was “A Tangled Web” by Amber Sloan, a New Jersey choreographer commissioned by Dance on the Lawn. Here three dancers meet center stage and lock arms, their embrace gradually pulling apart until it reaches a point of optimal tension, holding together a shape that abruptly twists. Sloan finds amusing ways to develop this basic situation, moving the interlocked trio through space kicking and hauling, reassembling the dancers back-to-back and eventually turning them upside down so their legs twine together. A friendly smile is the last thing that connects them.
Megan Chu performed her own solo “2 Peter,” a dance that features slow extensions and the sudden release of tension. Chu moved from a solid center that allowed her to take risks, balancing and reaching low. She skipped forward and then caught herself, and performed a headstand. She concluded the dance solidly planted, her back turned to us so we could better appreciate the slow spread of her arms.
Nai-Ni Chen’s dancers display a focus and commitment that makes their performances exciting. At Dance on the Lawn, five of them presented an excerpt from the dramatic “Shadow Force,” gathering energy and striking out, their movements oblique, the atmosphere alternately wild and smoothly controlled.
Max Richter’s score supplied a thudding heartbeat, and we heard a bird caw sharply in alarm. The piece began with stylized running, and this image acquired a psychological dimension when it returned at the end, one man abandoning the race to retreat alone.
Since the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s board of directors disgracefully abandoned their charge in 2011, opportunities to see this master’s works have been few and far between. The understated brilliance of a dance like “Landrover,” however, argues for the immediate restoration of a company dedicated full-time to this repertoire. Created in 1972, “Landrover” displays extraordinary inventiveness. Its mix of delicacy and athleticism dazzles the eye, while the movement unfolds in an atmosphere of breathtaking serenity.
Naturally, it helped that Monteiro and Harris performed the excerpted duet with exquisite attention to detail.
Beginning and ending in the same upstage corner, the dancers embarked on an adventure-filled journey, often stalking high on three-quarter pointe, tilting their upper bodies, exploring the stage and overcoming challenges. Monteiro achieved a moment of perfect poise, reclining balanced on one hip. Harris hung down his back and gradually descended, tentatively touching her partner’s leg. The support ranged from effortless lifts to the merest suggestion of contact, with limbs gently crossing and the dancers interacting peacefully in tight spaces.
In the end, Monteiro and Harris undertook a royal procession that paused when they twisted smoothly into the ground and executed a circle on the floor, before they rose and resumed their progress. Meanwhile, an intentionally incongruous score by John King and Anaïs Maviel scraped, tinkled and moaned until the singer literally croaked. Extraordinary!
This year’s Dance on the Lawn Festival featured a wealth of talent. There were nine performances in all, including the 277 dance project of choreographer Nicole Philippidis. Among the youngsters with greatest potential, the tappers of Maurice Chestnut’s Dance Therapy ensemble stood out for their polish and musical sophistication.
For more on the festival, visit danceonthelawn.org.
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