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Dusk Dances runs until Aug. 9 at Toronto’s Withrow Park.Photographer: John Lauener

My problem with the concept of family-friendly entertainment is the way it often plays lowest-common-denominator odds. So long as the kids are into it, everyone will be happy enough – call it vicarious pleasure or collective relief – frequently at the cost of any real risk or merit in content. But Dusk Dances, Toronto's 22-year-old outdoor dance festival, has been known to pull off the rare feat of combining noteworthy work with performances that keep smaller audience members rapt. This year's festival, which opened Monday night in Withrow Park, was no exception.

If I hadn't been impressed by the festival's choreography in previous years, I might wonder if critiquing the "dance" component of Dusk Dances is a bit like missing the point. A huge part of the evening is simply the evening itself – wandering around a park, as night falls, with a large group of strangers, finding yourself enchanted by the sudden transformation of public space into performance domain. You get to watch people watch dance, and then overhear the things they say about it – it's a non-dance crowd for the most part and they can be as generous as they are tough. I watched a man sway back and forth with his hand on his heart to a series of Puccini arias. Earlier, a teenage girl sitting in front of me was having nothing to do with some tie-dye costumes.

For me, the strongest piece of the evening was one that appealed equally, and ecstatically, to all ages. Choreographed and performed by Sylvie Bouchard (also the festival director) and Marie-Josée Chartier, Photuris Versicolor is a weird, captivating hybrid of dance and physical theatre. It follows the life cycle of two charismatic fireflies (Bouchard and Chartier in elaborate costumes, complete with long antennae, furry goggles and huge, pointed claws). They seem to repel each other initially, conveyed through jointed, twitchy insect moves that hilariously express defiance and contempt. Then the sound of thunder rolls overhead and the animosity cracks into tenderness. All this is set to "live insect-o-sonics" by Philip Strong, which is best explained as a dramatic soundscape of whirring, chattering and buzzing noises that the dancers embellish with their own aggressive clucks and endearing squeaks.

I also enjoyed Murmure de Femme, choreographed by Lua Shayenne and performed by her with Miranda Liverpool, Kassi Scott, Natasha Phanor, and Shireen Ali. The piece features Yankadi and Macru styles of dance from West Africa, the former slow and flowing, the latter more playful and upbeat. The women danced on the grass under four trees, accompanied by two live drummers. I was struck by the sense of spiritedness and presence in their performances – it was still light out, the women's faces were bright, and the expanse of green (echoed in their dresses – this is where the tie-dye so offended my teenage neighbour) underscored a feeling of vividness and energy.

The evening's last piece was Disconcertante, commissioned by Cloud 9, a company dedicated to making work for older dancers, and created by noted Canadian choreographer Tedd Robinson. Dusk fell as the dancers (Karen Kaeja, Claudia Moore, Linnea Swan, Graham Mckelvie, Ron Stewart) took their places in a section of the park with trees and lampposts. Dressed in evening wear redolent of the 1920s, they moved dreamily through space to Chopin's piano études. Moore appeared distinctly queen-like in a long, white satin dress. I liked the subtle intimations of back story and narrative: the ensemble seemed like guests who had wandered away from a dinner party to get some air, and proceeded to go mad under the moonlight. And I enjoyed the work's simple, imagistic nature – like an extended scene of French New Wave – with small, pared-down choreography and long sequences of silence.

The two other pieces were more memorable for me in terms of music than choreography. Recuerdos, created and performed by Esmeralda Enrique, featured gorgeous flamenco singing by Tamar Ilana, while Enrique's solo felt stiff. And while I didn't care for the saccharine cutesiness of Bella by Danny Grossman and Judy Jarvis, I couldn't help but love Puccini blaring on the speakers, just like the guy swaying with his hand on his heart nearby.

While it may not be Dusk Dances' strongest year, there's still ample fun and whimsy on offer, with flashes of strong concept and choreography. It all makes for a magical late-summer evening that really will appeal across the age spectrum.

Dusk Dances continues nightly until Aug. 9 at Toronto's Withrow Park, with matinees Aug. 6 and 9.

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