I had the privilege recently to attend a dance festival a bit different from the norm -- not one produced by an established organization, or part of a regional effort, or one of the well known dance festivals found in nearby New York City. This dance festival, billed as "community-based," took place the first weekend of September in the New York City suburb of Montclair, New Jersey. This "first annual Dance on the Lawn" outdoor dance concert was held in a simple yet perfect setting, the front lawn of the local Episcopal Church.
The key components of the performance space -- a festival banner, a marley covered platform stage and a great sound system - were complemented by a backdrop of trees, grass and the grand stone church to the rear. Add a warm, sunny day to the mix and the stage was set for a multi-faceted dance program for whomever dropped by to watch, lawn chairs and blankets in tow.
Alvin Ailey scholarship student Christopher Taylor - Photo: Tony Turner
Teachers, students, artists and choreographers participating all generously donated their time, and the program was offered to its audience free of charge, something rare these days. Designed to help support dance and culture and "celebrate the arts in our own communities," Dance on the Lawn hopes to become an annual event.
A diverse group of artists from New York, statewide from New Jersey, and some of Montclair's own were among those who performed, including New York's Seán Curran Company & Brice Mousset's Oui Danse, and New Jersey's Maurice Chestnut, Donna Scro's Freespace Dance, Randy James' 10 Hairy Legs, Nancy Turano's New Jersey Dance Theater Ensemble, Sharron Miller's Academy for the Performing Arts' Performance Workshop Ensemble, and Kathy Costa's DanceWorks & Company. Contemporary dance, contemporary ballet, tap dance and modern dance were represented.
I was touched by the sight of a group of children, jumping and dancing, attempting to copy what they saw on stage. Job well done... isn't that what it's all about, inspiring and exposing the next generation to dance?
Directed and curated by former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater faculty member, dance performer and historian Charmaine Warren, and hosted by Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, former Ailey principal dancer and now head of national outreach for Ailey's Arts in Education & Community Programs, Dance on the Lawn has been a heartfelt project long in the making.
I sat down with Charmaine to better understand what it takes to produce a community-based dance festival, and how her model can inspire other towns to do the same.
Here are some excerpts from that conversation:
What made you decide to produce Dance on the Lawn?
For more than two years I've wanted to share my love of dance with fellow Montclair residents so I began planning this event. There are other arts festivals in Montclair, so it just made sense to bring dance home and offer a dance festival too!
What are some of the difficulties faced in curating this project?
Because I've performed with some of the artists (I'm a curator and because no matter what, dance is part of my world), curating was not as difficult as it could have been. That said, I reached out some fabulous artists and asked them to perform without pay, and they said yes! The difficulty came when I, as an artist, knew how difficult it was for them to donate their time, so I set out to get financial assistance.
How did you find sponsors?
I am a Montclair resident, so I simply asked some wonderful people I know in the community for assistance. They signed on and donated their services (Toni's Kitchen, Studio042, Tony Turner Photography and IMANI, a community-based non-profit that offers educational support programs to promote high achievement for all students in the Montclair Public Schools). One company led me to another, and so on. For example, Donna Scro's Freespace Dance was an original company member of Seán Curran Company.
How can Dance on the Lawn serve as a role model for dance festivals in other communities?
I've been a curator for quite some time now - Harlem Stage's Dance Series, EMoves and The Wassaic Project Festival - so the curatorial part for me is not new. Being the producer/artistic director, though, is very new. The challenge was bringing all the pieces together and for the most part I was a one-woman-band. I don't recommend that route, but I will say that having good friends and supporters is a must. Stick with those in the community that know you and trust you. Talk to friends and supporters who you know will be there for you, no matter what!
How can local dance festivals help inspire and mentor our young people?
Exposure to dance has been shown to spur interest in the arts among young people. It's important to offer that exposure. I know that folks walked away feeling good about seeing dance; that's what counts.
Do you feel festivals such as yours help promote local dance companies?
Absolutely. The hope that this festival will be just the beginning of celebrating dance in New Jersey! Other communities should do the same.
Do you have any recommendations for others seeking to produce local dance festivals?
The best advice I can give is to follow your dream and don't be deterred by the many hills you have to climb; seriously, follow your dream -- the end result is so worth it!