What is it like to watch live dance again? Amazing

It didn’t bode well that the first live dance I was going to see since mid-March was one I had seen many times before. “Sunshine,” a Larry Keigwin war horse set to the Bill Withers classic “Ain’t No Sunshine,” can give a dancer the opportunity to really feel the music in all the worst ways. It’s treacly stuff.

So I’m happy to say that as soon as Melvin Lawovi began to move, my chest tightened; I even sensed — the horror — some tears. Lately, for self-preservation, I’ve been talking myself into believing that I can live without watching dance in person, and while that is true, I clearly miss it. A lot. “Sunshine,” which opened the outdoor Kaatsbaan Summer Festival under beautiful blue skies on Saturday, worked out just fine.

That was also to the credit of Lawovi, a recent addition to American Ballet Theatre, who never delivered a treacly moment as he traversed the stage with the lightest touch. Instead of dwelling on the lyrics or giving in to angst, he danced with an unparalleled polish, as if his body were clearing the air.

But repertory alone doesn’t seem the be-all and end-all of this summer festival, the first of its kind in Kaatsbaan’s 30 years as a cultural park. From the performances to Brandon Stirling Baker’s light-and-sound installation in a rustic barn to the peace of being surrounded by so much open space and air, the festival is not only about live dance. It’s a package. The best choreographic moments came in the dancers’ simple yet courtly walks across the grass to the stage.

Kaatsbaan’s artistic director, Stella Abrera, and its executive director, Sonja Kostich, aren’t messing around when it comes to safety, and that was comforting, too, at this socially distanced performance. The experience included frantically filling out the health check survey in the car while thinking hard about the questions: Was that a touch of a sore throat this morning?

I loved the elegant firmness of the handwritten signs telling us to wear masks; the raised stage that seemed as if it was dropped from the sky onto a field; and the optional post-performance walk, on the grounds of what was originally a farm, with live music (instead of a meandering or self-congratulatory post-performance talk).

Courtney Lavine in “The Dream Continues,” choreographed by Calvin Royal III, during the Kaatsbaan Summer Festival in Tivoli, NY, Aug 2020. The New York Times.

In honour of the Black Lives Matter movement, the festival has been curated by three respected Black dance artists: Calvin Royal III, a soloist at Ballet Theatre, who programmed the first weekend; Alicia Graf Mack, who leads the dance division of the Juilliard School; and Lloyd Knight of the Martha Graham Dance Company.

For the first programme, the selections were brief and unassuming — less about innovative choreography than watching bodies in motion. (Programmes are short: 20 to 30 minutes, and feature solos and duets.) At the start of the tap solo “Laying the Ground,” Leonardo Sandoval, accompanied by bassist Greg Richardson, used his body as an instrument, contrasting soft taps of his feet with gentle slaps on his thighs and chest as he made his way to a wooden platform on the stage. His footwork was hushed — an articulate, musical whisper — as he somehow managed to convey the idea that he was gliding just above his feet.

“The Dividing Line,” a premiere by Royal set to Gershwin, wavered between sensations — abutting stillness and alienation were glimpses of hope. Royal, cutting a figure both introspective and heroic, stood with his back to us at first, his arms bound from behind until he suddenly released them and skittered across the stage with quick backward steps.

That feeling of push and pull continued throughout this dance, in which Royal, in stops and starts, unleashed his body in space. While personal and poetic, its power might have been amplified had certain gestures — the reach of an arm, the somber bow of the head — been toned down, more accidental.

The 30-minute programme ended with another solo by Royal, “The Dream Continues,” set to excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and danced by the elegant Courtney Lavine, Royal’s Ballet Theater colleague. During the transition between the solos, Royal’s voice was heard reciting Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” as he slowly moved across the stage: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”

He hopped off, in essence handing the space to Lavine — and to King’s words, which beamed into the air with extra clarity.

Lavine, in a leotard and skirt that danced around her knees, used her luxurious arms and expansiveness to spin seemingly out of control then stop on a dime as she held still, giving beauty and breadth to King’s message. Her capacity to move clearly isn’t suffering under quarantine, but at the same time, it wasn’t about the steps: She was a spirit, clearly dancing for something bigger than herself.