It’s undoubtedly the most all-inclusive event of the Vineyard summer season: Built on Stilts, the two-week dance extravaganza, features dozens of dance troupes and individuals, both amateur and professional, local and imported, representing just about every style of dance you can think of (and a few you might not have expected).
The free series of performances at Oak Bluffs’ Union Chapel also attracts a wide-ranging crowd that runs the gamut from families to first-nighters, with a something-for-everyone approach and an egalitarian, community-minded spirit that you won’t find anywhere outside of the Vineyard.
Now in its 21st year, Built on Stilts has grown from a one-night event featuring seven dances to a multi-evening, fast-paced, kaleidoscopic festival now starring more acts than ever before. This year’s Built on Stilts will include 60 different pieces, featuring 130 performers. Each dance is original choreography, accompanied by a very wide range of recorded music, from classical to pop to experimental.
“I really thought last year, being our 20th, we would have reached a record number of artists and it would have fallen off a bit, but this year we have just as many,” says Built on Stilts leader Abby Bender.
To accommodate the growing number of participants, Ms. Bender has had to streamline the festival a bit. This year each act will be limited to around five minutes, and there will be no intermissions, keeping each night’s show to about an hour and a half.
One of the nicest things about the event is that it has a true festival feel. Each evening is preceded by a drum circle starting at 7:30. Musicians (all are welcome) warm up the crowd while visitors arrive, many drawn in from the surrounding area by the music and crowds. During the course of the each show, people can come and go as they please. Oftentimes, the merely curious check in briefly or watch from one of the Union Chapel’s many entrances. The crowd is always enthusiastic — cheering on each performer or group, and responding with thunderous applause at the end of the evening, as each act gets a chance to take an individual curtain call.
The festival combines local acts with dancers traveling from Boston, New York, New Haven, and Washington, D.C. “It’s interesting,” says Ms. Bender. “It used to be that I would bring people in from New York. Now it seems like there are so many connections that people approach me. I’m no longer the messenger. The festival has a life of its own.”
Some of the performers will be new to the festival, while many have been participating for years. Among the returnees are perennial favorites the Esther’s MV Line Dancing Polar Bears, Kelly Peters hip-hop troupe, and modern dance soloist Andy Jacobs. A popular act from past festivals, Man Dance, will be returning after a long hiatus. Ms. Bender is especially excited about Boston’s Wondertwins, who will be making their first appearance at Built on Stilts. The identical twin brothers combine hip-hop and theatricality for a unique mix.
Dance styles represented will include ballroom, tap, bellydance, hip-hop, ballet, and, of course, lots of contemporary dance in many varieties. “For people who think they don’t like modern dance, it’s a good way to get them on board,” says Ms. Bender. “If you don’t like something, just wait five minutes for something different.”
There are always lots of kids involved, both from local dance schools and from the two Built on Stilts weeklong camps for children and teens.
This year, Ms. Bender is incorporating more nondance elements. “There’s more music this year, and some things that have theatrical components,” she says. Among the musicians participating in the festival are Nina Violet, David Stanwood, Milo Silva, and Roberta Kirn.
In the past, the festival has showcased all kinds of performances, including slam poetry, a short play, a Rubik’s Cube demonstration, martial arts, circus arts, mime, and many more imaginative acts. “There’s the whole spectrum,” says Ms. Bender. “People will see some pretty conventional styles, and they’ll see some things that are really weird.”
Among the latter will be Ms. Bender’s own piece, which she notes will include “a toaster and a lot of sequins.”
Built on Stilts performances are at Union Chapel, 55 Narragansett Ave. in Oak Bluffs, on August 10, 11, 12, 19, 20, and 21. Visit builtonstilts.org.