Built on Stilts: A festival of dance
What started in 1997 as a night of performing arts with seven choreographers has morphed into a six-night-long free dance festival with nearly 40 dancers featured separately or in small groups, in performances ranging from hip-hop to ballet, jazz to modern. The 13th annual Built on Stilts, an eclectic collection of original dances, returned to Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs on Wednesday, August 12 and will continue through Monday, August 17. Since its inception it has brought together diverse segments of the community, professional and amateur, to perform for audiences. Each performance is required to be at least seven minutes or less in length.
"When my co-founder Anna Luckey and I came to the Island, we wanted to actually put on a show of our own. Since then, it has ballooned, and encompasses everything we do," says Abby Bender.
The two dancers had the idea of creating a summer dance project on the Island. With their dance experience a result of their education at Bard College, they got the inspiration for the title of their small festival from a theme of a dormitory project they worked on together at Bard. The dorm project involved making a sophisticated tree house, one "built on stilts" over a ravine.
"There's something about the venue that's really beautiful and amazing, and for a lot of the locals on the Island it's the one big show that they do. It's good for them because they don't have to produce it; they just have to bring their product," Ms. Bender says. "It doesn't matter if they are amateurs because the festival is set up in a way that's sophisticated, so the work looks professional when they perform it. People feel a lot of joy during the event. When they see that [the dancers] are all having fun, it makes it contagious."
When she's asked how she continues each year and where she gets her motivation, Ms. Bender says, "It's been so long that it's not even in question. It just needs to happen. It gives me such good pleasure, and the audience is so warm and amazing and they love everything. They go nuts for a 45-year-old ballet dancer's performance and they also go nuts for a five-year-old's performance. It's something about the Vineyard community. People feel proud or psyched when they see their kids, or neighbor, or music teacher up there performing."
Dance companies that have participated over the years include Kelly Peters Dance, Vineyard Belly Dance, She-Figured Dance, RISE Vineyard Performing Arts, and Martha's Vineyard Dance Theater. Students from RISE joined for the first time last year.
Much time and effort is put into the organization of Built on Stilts, including the time spent finding venues for the dance rehearsals such as Cottagers Corner in Oak Bluffs, Grace Church, DECA Design and Mansion House in Vineyard Haven, even Vineyard Complementary Medicine in West Tisbury.
"Every August when the festival ends, the process for next year's event begins," Ms. Bender says. "I put down the dates for next August, and then start registration in the spring."
Although the performances are different each night, every night begins with a drum circle with Paul Thurlow and Scott Hershowitz 7:30 pm. "During the Drum Circle people usually come in and join. People bring in their own drums, or other instruments like flutes, and it starts off the night," Ms. Bender says.
Seats fill quickly. Some nights a crowd crams together at the four main entrances, and pack the balconies.
The producers also created two programs for children and teens. Stiltshop, taught by Lucia Dillon and Eliza Greene, is a choreography workshop for children ages 5 to 11. During the workshop, basic elements of choreography are taught. But one of the main aspects of the workshop is the opportunity to give children the option to create dance from what they've learned, using their imagination. The children build a piece and perform it twice during the Built on Stilts festival.
"They're both sort of core groups that always work together. The bulk of BOS is made up of the people involved in it who work on their own things and then bring them to the festival. These programs are offered for Island kids to help them create their own dances instead of on their own," says Ms. Bender.
Advancedshop is a workshop for teens ages 12 to 16. Taught by Ms. Bender, the kids work together to generate their own pieces to present. Each person is encouraged to develop and contribute. Although no dance experience is required for the workshop, Advancedshop is challenging. Both workshops began at the end of July and continue until the first week in August.
"It's free, there are no tickets or admissions, no reservations, and people can come and go," says Ms. Bender. "The donations we receive and the tee-shirts that we sell are what support this event. Especially during a time like this, a dollar even makes a difference."
Ms. Bender adds, "We encourage people to come. Every night is so diverse and different, and it's never the same each year.
Built on Stilts began Wednesday, August 12 and goes through Monday, August 17. It begins at 7:30 pm each night at Union Chapel Church in Oak Bluffs.
Caitlyn Clark, a resident of Oak Bluffs, is a summer intern at The Times.