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DANCE: Stepping back in 

After a year hiatus, the Nazareth College Arts Center Dance Festival will return Saturday and Sunday, May 3-4, but in a rather scaled down form compared to the last three years it was held. The festival will run for two days, rather than the previous nine or ten, and is headlining with a lesser known, but solid talent, LehrerDance.

The Martha Graham Dance Company, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and STREB Extreme Action Company performed during previous years.

Nazareth College marketing and publicity manager Mare Willow attributes the changes to a desire to better-serve Nazareth students and the college's growing dance department by holding the festival before the academic year ends.

The headline show, Kaleidescopika (The Art of Unfolding) — a 3-way collaboration between LehrerDance, Cordis Quartet, and Brooklyn-based aerial and circus arts group MUSE — sounds exciting. Community guest, Heart of Dance, a troupe which includes dancers in wheelchairs and with other developmental disabilities, performs on Sunday night. The popular Dancing on the Grass program will feature Borinquen Dance Theatre, another local company. Borinquen provides serious dance training to at-risk teenagers. Pre-performance lectures and a master class are, again, included in the festival.

"We're really excited to have the dance festival back and to be sharing it with our talented students this year," Willow said. "We're showcasing a lot of diversity and it's going to be great to expose our students to other ways of dance. Our theme is 'What is Dance?' and all three of the groups performing address this in their own way."

LehrerDance, a Buffalo-based company formed by Jon Lehrer in 2007, performed in Dancing on the Grass during the 2012 dance festival. Lehrer is thrilled to be headlining this year. "From the grass to the theater," he joked.

"Kaleidescopika is a wonderful integration of live music, athletic artistry and the awe-inspiring nature of aerial performance," he said. "It really is like looking through a kaleidoscope. A beautiful experience for your senses."

The show also features a vivid, multimedia backdrop.

The company, four men and four women, is known for its high-voltage athleticism and unique choreography. Lehrer's choreography is a mixture of modern and jazz as is his dance experience and training. During his 13 years of dancing before he founded his company, Lehrer performed with the classic modern group Eric Hawkins Dance Company in New York City and Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago. Always an athlete, Lehrer actually took his first dance class on a dare from his girlfriend while he was a student at the University of Buffalo.

Richard Grimes, the director of Cordis Quartet, approached Lehrer with his idea for a collaboration after seeing the company perform at Pennsylvania Presenters, a festival at Mercy Hurst College. Back in his hotel room that night, Lehrer listened to the CD Grimes had given him and knew he wanted in.

"To me, their music is the perfect combination of classic sensibility combined with a rock 'n' roll edge and intricate musicality," he said.

LehrerDance performs in Nazareth's Callahan Theater Saturday at 8 p.m. A pre-performance lecture takes place at 7 p.m. in the Peace Theater (room A14 in the lower level of the Arts Center).

Heart of Dance's story is, indeed, a heartwarming one. Led by Diane Sturmer, also the Spiritual Life Coordinator/Community Bridge Builder at Heritage Christian Services where many of the performers live and work, it began with one woman in a wheelchair and her desire to dance.

"This all started 14 years ago when my friend Nancy Craig singed the word 'dance' to me," Sturmer said. "I asked her if she wanted to be a dancer and she responded with a hearty yes."

Sturmer went back to school to earn her M.A. in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Dance, produced a thesis entitled "Who Can Dance" and went on to create the company that put her ideas into action. Craig, now 65 years old, will be onstage Sunday.

Sturmer's dance group grew to include performers of all abilities — trained dancers, dancers with wheelchairs and with various other disabilities, and guest dancers from around the Rochester community. Over the last seven years, the 48-person company has preformed throughout the Rochester area, as well as reaching Killarney, Ireland. Eventually, the group began to make a little profit from ticket sales, which the dancers were able to put back into charities of their own choosing. There are currently over 60 people on the wait list to join Heart of Dance.

Sturmer will speak at the pre-performance lecture Sunday at 6 p.m in the Peace Theater. The show begins at 7 p.m. A Master Class with Sturmer and Cynthia Andresen of Heart of Dance is being offered from 2-3 p.m. on Sunday. Class is free, but pre-registration is required. Call 389-2170.

That leaves Dancing on the Grass with Borinquen Dance Theatre from 2-3 p.m. on Saturday. Sunday is the rain date. This free event takes place on the Golisano Academic Center lawn.

Like Sturmer, Artistic Director Nydia Padilla-Rodriguez proffers an opportunity to dance to those who may have not otherwise have had one. Her goal is to help youth build the desire to succeed through the discipline of dance. By mastering difficult dance movements, students learn to foster a dedicated work ethic and a sense of discipline that help them succeed within a broader life framework.

Borinquen combines Puerto Rican Folkloric dance and Latin contemporary to produce audience-pleasing performances. The company will perform seven of Padilla-Rodriguez's choreographed works in the show. Another piece to be performed, "Kinetic Energy," is a first attempt at choreography by Karis Imani Perry; a Borinquen dancer since 2008, Perry moves on to college next year.

"To see her develop and grow — first as a dancer, then as a peer instructor, and now as a choreographer — that's what this program is all about," Padilla-Rodriguez said last week. "Our goal is for our dancers to grow and become more connected with their selves, and then to share that talent with the community."

Christopher Morrison, who teaches modern dance for Borinquen, will also display his choreographic talent in the concert with a piece called "A Journey: Looking for Freedom," inspired by a scene in the movie "Django Unchained."

I must disclose, this is a piece that I know intimately. For months now, I have tried to master it in Morrison's adult contemporary dance class at Midtown Athletic Club and in his movement class at Hochstein School of Music and Dance. It's a lush, gorgeous piece, full of sensual phrases, feisty attitude and deep feeling. I, for one, will be sitting in the grass watching.

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