Contemporary dance troupes from the United States and Italy will perform.

Six dance companies from the United States and Italy will join Newport's Island Moving Company at this year's Great Friends Dance Festival, a five-night showcase of variations on the theme of contemporary dance.

And for the first time in nearly a decade, performances will take place outdoors, at St. Michael’s Country Day School, in Newport, where Mother Nature will be the set designer.

The festival is the public part of IMC's Great Friends Touring Project, which brings small companies to perform for local audiences and, through reciprocal arrangements, takes IMC’s dancers to new venues. Since 2010 when the project began, IMC has traveled to nine cities and brought 28 companies from the United States and abroad to perform in Newport.

This year, as in the past, each of the five performances features IMC dancers presenting works by Miki Ohlsen, the company's founder and artistic director, and others, but the companies sharing the bill is different each night.

The companies are Breathing Art of Bari, Italy; the culturally diverse Thomas/Ortiz Dance of New Canaan, Connecticut; Carolyn Dorfman Dance of Union, New Jersey, known for its high-energy work; Continuum Dance of Jersey City, New Jersey, which embraces different styles, concepts and genres; and Lotería Performing Arts, also of New York City, named after a Mexican game of chance and promoting collaborations between Mexican and American artists.

The visiting "resident" company, which spends two weeks studying, rehearsing and collaborating with IMC, is the Staycee Pearl dance project from Pittsburgh. This company has a reputation for athletic performance and storytelling often inspired by social and political issues, and Pearl, who runs PearlArts Studios with her husband and sound designer Herman Pearl, will choreograph a work specifically for an ensemble that includes her dancers and those from IMC.

IMC defines itself as a contemporary ballet company, and while their styles are different, both Ohlsen and Pearl agree the outdoor setting adds atmosphere to their work.

"Outside, things have a more sweeping quality," Ohlsen says, noting that IMC regularly performed outdoors until successive years of inclement weather drove them inside. But she decided to take a chance again this year.

"Being outdoors gives a whole new perspective," she says. "You see movement differently, and we program for that, doing things that will catch people’s attention."

The dancers perform on a raised stage, but patrons should take chairs or blankets for seating, an arrangement that allows for picnics.

Pearl says natural settings can create happy accidents. She recalls her company’s performance at last year’s Great Friends Festival when the venue, albeit indoors at the 17th-century Great Friends Meeting House, created a historically suggestive atmosphere for a work called "Freedom Day." She also remembers a different time and place when the setting sun, seen through a wall of windows at the performance space, created a palette that matched her dancers’ costumes.

Pearl emphasizes the importance she places on expressiveness in contemporary dance. "We’re developing a training program on how to bring all that emotion to your audience," she says. That said, she notes, "We’re strong technicians; we want strong lines and feet that work." Her background includes classical ballet as well as training at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center.

Ohlsen, who studied in Rhode Island with Herci and Myles Marsden and graduated from the Fine Arts Academy in Amsterdam, Holland, choreographs for dancers on pointe as well as the soft shoes customarily worn by contemporary dance practitioners.

Her work, "Tessellation of Beauty and Light," is on the festival program, along with "Marionetas" by Rodney Rivera, a former IMC choreographer-in-residence; "Tripping on Our Light Fantastic Toes" by Maurice Causey, who is based in Amsterdam; and a new piece by Danielle Genest, IMC’s associate artistic director.

Besides creating atmosphere and the opportunity for picnics, Ohlsen believes an outdoor setting removes the formality of an indoor performance.

"It’s more relaxed," she says.

Pearl agrees and suggests, "Just take a deep breath and watch."

— Kathie Raleigh is a Rhode Island-based freelance writer.

If you go …

What: Island Moving Co.’s Great Friends Dance Festival

Where: Outdoors at St. Michael’s Country Day School, 180 Rhode Island Ave., Newport. Picnics welcomed. Bring chairs or blankets for seating.

When: July 18-21 at 6:30 p.m., July 22 at 6 p.m. Pre-performance talk 5:45-6:15 nightly except July 22 when talk starts at 5:15 p.m.

Tickets: $30 single, $50 for two performances, $100 for 5-performance flex pass.

Information: (401) 847-4470, islandmovingco.org