Built on Stilts kicks off 15th year

Devon Lodge, an Islander studying at The Juilliard School, performed "Landfill" on Saturday night. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

For the 15th year, Martha’s Vineyard’s dance and performance festival Built on Stilts has returned and will continue its eight-show run August 20 to 23 at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs.

“Built on Stilts brings the entire community together and reminds us that we all have this wonderful language in common,” said director Abby Bender.

The idea for the festival began when Ms. Bender and co-founder Anna Luckey came to the Vineyard seeking to create a venue for the Island’s dance community. The first show in 1997 consisted of one evening at the Union Chapel with stage manager Brent Alberghini, a few performances, and a small audience, but it has evolved over the last 15 years into a staple of the summer, running for eight nights each August and allowing both local and non-local communities to express the Island and themselves. Built on Stilts is organized each year by Ms. Bender and Mr. Alberghini, and is supported in part by the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council.

Unlike most performances, Built on Stilts welcomes all ages, art forms, and levels of talent and experience, and no two evenings are the same. Although this year’s program is heavily focused on dance, past seasons have included slam poetry, plays, and live music. Registration is open to anyone over 16 years of age, and consists of only two rules: no nudity or swearing.

“Built on Stilts is accepting of all people,” said the Island’s Kaleidoscope Dance teacher Laura Sargent Hall, who has performed in the festival every year since its inception. “It is what summer is about for me. It’s the place that has given me the opportunity to expand my own dance and perform my own choreography.”

In addition to the strong standing of locals such as Ms. Hall, Island Salsa, and the staff of The Yard that returns faithfully each year, this season nearly 50 percent, a record high, of the performers come from off-Island dance communities and companies.

“[The Built on Stilts community] isn’t like New York City where everyone is part of the rat race. Here, everyone just loves to dance, and that’s what makes it great,” said second year assistant stage manager and performer Charles Gushue, who works at Triskelion Arts, a nonprofit rehearsal and performance center in Brooklyn, of which Ms. Bender is executive director. Mr. Gushue will perform with Ms. Bender on Saturday and Monday evenings.

“The show is so much fun to watch and perform in,” said Devon Lodge, a rising freshman at The Juilliard School, who grew up dancing on the Island and in Built on Stilts. “It has taught me how to release everything and just to have fun. It’s stress-free and has a lot of energy, which is perfect.” Mr. Lodge will perform a self-choreographed solo on Sunday and Tuesday, as well as in a group piece choreographed by Ms. Bender on Sunday.

Younger performers can participate in the festival with the Advancedshop workshop for ages 12 to 16, directed by Ms. Bender, and Stiltshop, ages 5 to 11, directed by Lucia Dillon and Eliza Greene, who have both participated in the festival since they were Stiltshoppers in 1997. The workshops explore the art of choreography and allow the participants to craft their own dances for the festival.

“We get to make our own dance without anyone saying, ‘Do this, do that.’ Everyone claps at the end, and you feel so proud because you know they are all thinking, ‘this is awesome!'” said Fiona Smilie, age 8, who has performed with Stiltshop for the last two years.

Yet the dancers aren’t the only ones who enjoy and take part in the show — Built on Stilts is known as much for its audience as it is for its performers. “The audience for Built on Stilts is phenomenal,” Ms. Bender said. “It’s unusual to have whole families that come to watch a dance performance. There is something about the energy and location of the show that makes everyone go nuts for every piece. They know that the performer is up on stage baring their soul and giving themselves to the audience, and the audience completely gives back.”

Built on Stilts, Saturday–Tuesday, Aug. 20–23, Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs. Doors open at 7:30 pm with a drum circle and warm-ups onstage. Performances begin at 8 pm after a showing of Mr. Alberghini’s video highlighting the growth of the festival and the performers over the last 15 years. The lineups for this weekend include many dance types from ballet to modern, hip-hop to lyrical. Attendance is free and donations to the festival are recommended. For more information about registration, performance schedules, and donations, visit builtonstilts.org.