Dance on the Lawn returns for its 8th year on Saturday, September 11. The free outdoor festival offers live performances from some of the best professional dancers in the area and showcases some of the best future talent as well. The event takes place in front of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (73 South Fullerton Avenue) in Montclair from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
“The setting for dance absolutely impacts the way an audience experiences it,” explained Laura Marchese, Managing Director of Dance on the Lawn. “Our setting at St. Luke’s Church is very beautiful. It’s a nice, wide open lawn, and the backdrop of the stage is this gorgeous, old brick Church from the 1800s [built in 1889 and added to the National Register in 1988]. It’s a beautiful cathedral on one side and a beautiful Tudor building on the other. When you’re watching dance in this setting, it’s all so much brighter. The kinetic energy just fills the space. It’s a very beautiful experience to see dance outdoors.”
That experience was missing last year when the festival was forced to be shown virtually due to the pandemic.
The 2021 lineup includes dancers from two professional companies based in New Jersey – Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company and Megan Chu from Inimois Dance – one based in New York (Nicole Philippidis from 277 Dance Project), and four schools from New Jersey – Movement Arts Project/Dance For Joy, Sharron Miller’s Academy for the Performing Arts, Danceworks Studios, and Maurice Chestnut’s Dance Therapy.
In addition to offering presentation opportunities, Dance on the Lawn created an Emerging Commissioned New Jersey Choreographer and mentor program to help support young, emerging artists. Amber Sloan, a choreographer, performer, and teacher who has had an 18-year commissioning relationship with DanceNow NYC, holds that honor this year.
"I am incredibly honored to be selected as this year's NJ Emerging Commissioned Choreographer,” said Sloan. “I am grateful for this opportunity to immerse myself in the New Jersey community, meet local artists, build new relationships, and develop and perform my work for the Dance on the Lawn audience.
The original idea behind the festival was to celebrate and promote dance in the Garden State. What began as a simple idea has turned into one of the most anticipated days of the year for dance fans and dance companies in the region.
“Laura (Marchese) and I both live in Montclair, but both of our dance worlds began in New York,” said Charmaine Warren, Founder/Producer and Artistic Director of Dance on the Lawn. “Because we traverse the state lines and live here, we wanted to make sure we bring New York to New Jersey – but more than anything else, we want to uplift New Jersey dance because there’s so much of it.”
The festival’s mission will be enhanced by two dancers recently added to the lineup. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancers Chalvar Monteiro and Jacquelin Harris will perform excerpts from Merce Cunningham’s Landrover. Chalvar, who began his formal dance training at Montclair’s Sharron Miller's Academy for the Performing Arts, will be returning home for the first time since joining Ailey.
“Chalvar is coming home!” exclaimed Warren. “That is a big, big deal.”
Warren recalled going to New York to see Chalvar dance as part of an afternoon put together by Kyle Abraham for New York Pop Ups. “I went to see what Kyle was doing and saw this duet. I immediately came back and said, ‘Laura, I think we’ve got to bring Chalvar home.’”
“Chalvar’s presence features quite largely in our neighborhood,” added Marchese. “I was one of his teachers at Sharon Miller’s studio. I remember him as a kid – maybe 13-14 years old – and now he’s a launched and fully bloomed dancer. For those kids in Sharon’s student class to see Chalvar come back as a professional… what does that do? That’s modeling of success! It’s food for any artist’s soul.”
One of the most gratifying aspects to the festival for Warren and Marchese is seeing the student dancers perform and then sit on the lawn to watch the professionals.
“It is important to us that on our roster we present schools, an emerging choreographer, New Jersey professionals, and New York professionals,” continued Marchese. “We feel what we’re doing is presenting to the community, but also supporting dance as an art form, dance as a profession, so that by example we are mentoring these young dancers to come forward.”
The audience at Dance on the Lawn each year includes both dance aficionados and those watching a dance performance for the first time. There are families with children, dance students from around the state, and those just enjoying a beautiful afternoon outside with the arts.
Some of Marchese and Warren’s best memories are when they hear about the effect dance has on the audience. Marchese recalled a colleague of hers who brought his autistic son to the festival. The boy was non-verbal and medically fragile, needing physical support to move through the world. He sat on the lawn and was captivated by the dancers.
“Afterwards, his mother cried telling me the story,” said Marchese. “He looked at her at one point and said, ‘More, please.’ She was so moved to see this young person be so connected to seeing bodies in motion, it fed his soul. He expressed it very simply, but in a powerful way.”
“We’re not biased at all, but this dance thing is a cure-all!” said Warren.
The dance community also holds Dance on the Lawn in high regard. As soon as the festival closes each year, applications for one of the coveted spots are sent by dance companies throughout the area. And when 10 Hairy Legs, the New Jersey company led by Randy James, dissolved at the end of 2020, it donated their net assets to the festival. This funding specifically supports the annual Dance on the Lawn NJ Emerging Commissioned Choreographer award.
“The creation of new work was an integral part of our mission and vision,” stated Betsy Sobo, 10 Hairy Legs’ Executive Director. “We are pleased that we are able to support Dance on the Lawn’s efforts to foster emerging choreographic talent in our home state of New Jersey and thus encourage ongoing creativity in the nurturing hands of Dance on the Lawn.”
Warren and Marchese are excited to see the festival return. In accordance with current CDC guidelines, both vaccinated and unvaccinated guests can attend Dance on the Lawn. Unvaccinated visitors will be required to wear their masks when they cannot maintain 6-feet of distance from others. Children under the age of 2 are not required to wear a mask.
“I know that we’re all hungry to see live performances again,” said Warren. “We hope that the energy from 2019 will be there – just the energy of interfacing with live performers. I hope it feeds the souls of those who are wanting it.”
Marchese agrees, “Everyone is so hungry for it. We have been deprived of live performance for so long. I hope people will come away with a reminder and an affirmation of how important this art form is. Dance is important to our culture and to our lives. We need this and we haven’t had it. I hope this will be a moment of, ‘Ah, yes… this is what we’ve been missing!’”
Dance on the Lawn: Montclair’s Dance Festival takes place Saturday, September 11, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 73 S. Fullerton Ave in Montclair at 3 p.m. Visit www.danceonthelawn.org for more information and to view the program.