Built on Stilts dance festival in Oak Bluffs

"Ball-A," choreographed by Laura Sargent Hall. Pictured from left to right: Teo Azzollini, Abby Bender, Roberta Kirn, Lily Morris, Laura Sargent Hall, Grace Hall. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Every summer for the past 14 years, the Built on Stilts dance festival has turned Oak Bluffs Union Chapel into a mecca for dancers from all over, and a hive of joyous activity for a good chunk of August. From a one-night showcase for the work of seven choreographers, the festival has grown into a multi-evening extravaganza that spotlights dance in all its myriad forms.

Abby Bender, who along with college friend Anna Luckey founded Built on Stilts, runs Triskelion Arts, a theater and arts center in Brooklyn. She also has her own dance company, Abby Bender Schmantze Theater, but despite a very demanding schedule, she still takes the time each year to organize and host the local festival.

“I’m not gonna lie,” Ms. Bender says. “It’s a pain in the butt.” As to why a woman who has made a success in her chosen career continues to donate her time and energy to a project she began when fresh out of school, she notes, “It reminds me why I’m in the dance world. It keeps me from getting jaded. It’s more of an organic and genuine thing, not a situation where everybody wants to be somebody.”

And, although every participant gets to take center stage and enjoy their seven minutes of fame, the performances are almost all lacking in self-consciousness or ego. What comes across more than anything is the pouring out of heart and soul into a brief choreographed dramatization of the joy of life —something that dance manifests so well.

Anyone can participate. There are no auditions, and the only requirements are that choreographers be at least 16 years old and material be appropriate for kids. In past years art forms such as poetry, theater, and live music have been included (and are still welcome) but this year the festival is all dance. According to Ms. Bender, about 60 to 70 percent of the performers are locals. The festival has increasingly attracted artists from other communities in the northeast and Ms. Bender also recruits dance associates and acquaintances from New York.

One professional dance troupe, the Elm City Dancers from New Haven, Conn., were alerted to the opportunity by one of the dancer’s college advisers. Their modern piece, SNAP, was a sophisticated modern dance performed in elaborate costumes.

Others, like Andrew Jacobs, who performed a solo piece on Friday, have attended past performances while visiting the Island and were inspired to get involved.

“I was sitting in the audience last year and I thought ‘Watching is good, but performing and living it would be great,'” Mr. Jacobs, a dance student at Adelphi University, said. His athletic modern dance piece was a real crowd-pleaser and he intends to come back.

Friday night’s performance included a number of modern pieces, a salsa set, a hula hooping number, two ensemble interpretive dance pieces, and a fun ballet performed by six dancers who managed to execute a graceful performance with huge exercise balls sewn into their flowing skirts.

Two choreography workshops for young people are held each year starting two weeks before the performance dates, with the goal of creating a dance for the festival. Ms. Bender notes that two former Stiltshop (the workshop for 5- to 11-year-olds) participants are now teaching this year’s students. The older Advanceshop students, led by Ms. Bender, performed their piece, Catch and Release, on Friday. The dance was a fun modern piece that incorporated a variety of dance styles and gave each member a solo turn. The final product was very polished and well-rehearsed.

Ms. Bender notes that the cost of the festival runs between $8,000 and $12,000 each year. A $25 entry helps defray the cost, but primarily the event is funded by tee-shirt sales and donations made during the performances. Built on Stilts receives some funding from the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council. Part of the expense is due to an effort to give performers some time in the Union Chapel for rehearsal.

“We like to give half an hour to an hour tech time,” Ms. Bender says. “I think this is what makes it different. It doesn’t reek of amateurism. The more time we can give the artists the better.”

The festival not only gives amateur dancers a chance to perform before what is always a large crowd, but professional dancers can try out new material or experiment with different styles. Many of the Island’s dance studios are represented, as are groups such as the local ballroom dance and belly dance troupes.

The seven shows feature a broad spectrum of sophistication and styles, which is part of the festival’s charm. The fast pace (pieces must be under seven minutes and there’s barely a blink of an eye in-between performances) and variety of styles make the shows ideal viewing for people who are not necessarily dance enthusiasts. The high energy is infectious and there almost seems to be a perfect symbiotic relationship between audiences who are ready to embrace any and all, and performers who are enthusiastically anxious to please.

Built on Stilts is a wonderful and unique event that has carved its niche in the Vineyard summer season.

“It reminds me of what’s good about dance,” Ms. Bender says. “It’s about playing and moving and remembering that you’re alive.”

Built On Stilts, Saturday–Monday, Aug. 21–23, 7:30 pm, Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs. builtonstilts.org; 508-717-2887.

Gwyn McAllister, of Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.