Dance artists, some emerging and some established, excel at the Montclair outdoor festival

PHOTOS BY TONY TURNER

Esteban Santamaria and Namhui Kim dance the late Nai-Ni Chen’s “crosscurrent” at Dance on the Lawn in Montclair.

The annual Dance on the Lawn festival in Montclair marks the start of the fall dance season, but the carefree spirit of summer lingers on at this sunny outdoor event. This year’s free show took place on Saturday, September 10 in front of the Montclair Public Library, and visitors who were drawn to the Montclair Jazz Festival had a great time.

On a day when all of Montclair seemed to be celebrating, Dance on the Lawn offered a spirited lineup of professionals and students, with each group introduced by Nasha Thomas, the elegant emcee. Bright and hopeful, the teenagers warmed up the crowd. Keep working, kids! And never take your eyes off the pros.

Thanks to a legacy from the defunct 10 Hairy Legs company, Dance on the Lawn is able to commission new work from emerging artists. This year’s “emerging New Jersey choreographer” was Will A. Ervin Jr., whose four dancers opened the program’s professional segment with a piece called “Cycle.” Rushing across the stage in choppy transitions, the dancers left behind one of their own, isolated and perhaps forgotten. Raising their hands upward in a broken gesture, they rubbed their fingers together, looking bewildered by the texture of the air. Hung together in a tangled group, they circled and struggled. Ervin explained that his play was inspired by the suffering of a man wrongfully imprisoned for a murder he did not commit.

Maurice Chestnut at Dance on the Lawn.

Maurice Chestnut is a tap dancing sensation and one of the most amazing performers on the scene today. At Dance on the Lawn, he performed a solo titled “Interlude in Rhythm” on a square platform just 4 feet by 4 feet, and boundless inventive streams of music poured out from that small space. Adding to the impression of magic, this artist tapped with the speed and delicacy of a hummingbird. Holding himself back, he deliberately put three steps on the ground, then the next moment he allowed himself to levitate on a sound cushion. By inviting us to clap our hands to fill in the missing beats, he changed the rhythm in a playful way and the public loved being teased.

“A Measure of Quarantine” by Maxine Steinman places two dancers, Elijah Carter and Amir Baldwin, in an intimate space where Satie’s “Gymnopédies” and the gentle synchronies and manipulations of the men create a warm atmosphere. Eventually, Carter backed away, however, and watched Baldwin dance alone, swinging his arms, tiptoeing, and bending over. When Baldwin ran a hand over his forehead, he seemed to take on a personal resolution.

By contrast, the late Nai-Ni Chen’s “Crosscurrent” duet was a passionate affair in which amorous caresses alternated with sudden jerks, pirouettes and leaps. Namhui Kim and Esteban Santamaria were the fiery partners, finally pressing their palms together in a gesture of magnetic attraction.

Courtney J. Lewis performs “ER” at Dance on the Lawn.

Another duet, Mikaela Morisato’s “Euphonic Connection,” displayed a less statuesque style, with Liana Zhen-ai Kleinman and Ragin Smith shaking, kicking, and somersaulting throughout the dance. A wild energy possessed these two, until the music abruptly stopped, releasing them from their compulsions.

Dancer Courtney J. Lewis capped off the program with the solo “ER”, choreographed by Abdel R. Salaam. Dressed in a white lab coat, Lewis was the mistress of a battle-scarred table that stood in for a hospital stretcher as she rode and handled it. Responding to a series of urges, Lewis threw himself desperately into action, kicking and convulsing, pounding the table with his fists and skating on it. When the table tipped over with Lewis still clinging to it, the whole world seemed to tilt at crazy angles.

For some people, every Saturday evening is like this, and we wish these care professionals the strength to continue.

To learn more about this annual event, visit danceonthelawn.org.

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