Five years before his dancers first hit the stage, Jon Lehrer was lining up tour stops. The professional dancer, who toured for 13 years with two internationally-known dance companies as well as the Radio City Rockettes, knew the amount of work and planning that goes in to setting up a tour.
Before he’d even selected the name for his new dance company, he set the wheels in motion.
"I didn’t want to just choreograph and solely be an entertaining art form," said Lehrer. "I wanted to create an international touring dance company that would also be a sustainable business."
His business savvy paid off. In 2007, Lehrer Dance kicked off its inaugural season by performing all across the country – garnering rave reviews and creating a national fan base. Ironically, however, the company was less well known in its hometown of Buffalo, but that soon changed.
"My proudest moment since starting Lehrer Dance occurred several years ago, when we sold out the main stage at UB’s Center For The Arts," said Lehrer. "We’d toured all over, received international coverage and had fans everywhere – but being able to build an audience right here in Buffalo was very satisfying. That night, close to eighteen hundred people bought tickets to see us perform, and we’ve sold out every performance at CFA since."
Today, the company is housed at UB’s Center For The Arts and has a partnership with UB’s Department of Theatre and Dance.
Further proof of the dance company’s international reach came when the U.S. Consulate in Vladivostok, Russia contacted Lehrer. They were looking for "a pure American dance company to perform for the Russian people," and had chosen Lehrer out of 100 recommended American dance companies.
"We were barely five years old at the time," said Lehrer, "so it was quite an honor." Lehrer Dance performed in Russia four years in a row.
Lehrer believes the company stands out due to its the unique style of dance, which is "equal parts athleticism, artistry and accessibility." Lehrer Dance numbers can’t be labeled in a classic style, as they are more self-defining and contemporary, a concept Lehrer calls "organic athleticism" that helps attract a wider audience.
Dance numbers such as "Troika," "Rascal," and "Bridge and Tunnel" show off the incredible agility and focus of the dancers and the creativity and vision of Lehrer’s choreography. One minute the audience is enthralled by a serious piece featuring slow, solemn music and deliberate, emotional movements, and the next everyone’s laughing and tapping their feet to a whimsical number with bright, funky costumes and gymnastic-like moves. (See video at Lehrerdance.org.)
Lehrer works with several costume designers for the different pieces he creates, explaining his vision for the piece and seeking theirs for the costumes. The result is costumes that not only help tell the story of the piece, but beautifully accentuate the perfectly toned bodies of the Lehrer dancers (currently there are eight).
"When people attend one of our performances, I want them to feel like they just saw something that caused a reaction – any reaction! Doesn’t matter if it’s physical, mental, psychological, negative, positive, whether it makes them laugh or cry or even just smile," said Lehrer. "Then I know we’ve succeeded."
Buffalo native Rachael Leonard – who knew she wanted to be a dancer since age five – is in her eighth season with Lehrer Dance. She agrees Lehrer’s technique is quite different.
"We’re not ballet, modern or jazz dancers – we’re all of those things. We approach dance from a specific mindset of physics, body and momentum that sets us apart," said Leonard. "What I love most about dancing with Lehrer is that this kind of dance feels good on my body and my soul. It makes me feel most like myself. I think we all feel that way, and it shows on stage. I think that’s why we appeal to such a broad audience."
Frank Ciccia knew little about dance before joining the Lehrer Dance board of directors (he’s the current board president), but now knows how lucky Buffalo is to have Lehrer Dance. "The great thing about Buffalo is that while we enthusiastically support our sports teams, we also support arts and cultural entities," said Ciccia, adding he can’t imagine anyone who would not find Lehrer Dance entertaining in some way. "Once you see them perform, you can’t help but be awed and impressed."