There are only a few caveats for the artists who perform with the Built on Stilts community dance festival, whether amateur or professional — their piece must be appropriate for all ages, no longer than seven minutes, and presented with bare-bones technical needs. This dance festival features a bit of everything: modern and contemporary dance, hip-hop, tap, and belly dancing, spoken word, performance art, Zumba, music, and circus acts. There are 50 different works, and between 100 to 200 performers over the course of the seven-day festival.
You might think the boundaries limit what you are going to see, but be forewarned: If you have never been, you will be astonished not just by the performances but also by their mood, ideas, music, costumes, and what they evoke in you. Some will make you sigh from their poignancy and others will make you laugh at their lighthearted but sophisticated humor.
While the audience is free to come and go throughout the performance at Union Chapel, last Saturday virtually no one left. The performance is way too engrossing and uplifting to walk away from. Sitting on the few rows of benches lining walls of the octagonal building, the audience sits rapt during each piece, which is performed in the center of the space. Despite the number of works and the array of very young to older adults, the show runs professionally and like clockwork, so the pace and atmosphere never sags during the approximately 90-minute performance.
Built on Stilts originated in 1997 in Abby Bender and Anna Luckey’s desire to establish an accessible community for shared dance performance on the Vineyard. Surprisingly the title Built on Stilts does not refer to tall wooden circus stilts, but rather to the women’s freshmen dorms when they attended Bard College. The dorms were “built on stilts” in the back, overlooking a steep ravine. In this context, stilts are an apt metaphor for Bender’s desire to “welcome viewers and participants into the outbacks of the imagination.” Nonetheless, “in recent years, after defying so many people’s expectations, we do have stilters outside before the performance, but they came as an afterthought,” Bender said.
While there are newcomers every year, many of the performers — as well as audience members — return annually, drawn back each time by the satisfying symbiotic relationship between the audience and performers.
Seventeen-year-old dancer Grace Hall reported that she started performing as early as she could, at 5 years old. However, she pointed out, that’s not quite right. “I participated when my mom danced when she was pregnant with me, and she’s participated every year.” Indeed, her mother, Laura Sargent Hall, who teaches dance on the Vineyard, concurred: “I’ve been a choreographer and dancer with Built on Stilts since it started. It’s really special, joyful, and inclusive to everybody.” Grace added, “Because I have such busy summers, I always have to figure out how to fit it in. But it’s so worth it. It’s magical.”
It is professional dancer Andy Jacobs’ eighth year at the festival, which he does “just to fulfill my need to dance.” He explains, “I first saw Built on Stilts in 2009, and afterward ran up to Abby Bender and asked her how I could be a part of it the next year. Every year since, I just keep coming back, because it’s something I need to do to make myself feel good. It’s the atmosphere from the people I get to perform with.”
Jacob choreographs and performs a solo each year. Along with Bender, he also facilitates the young children’s Stiltshop, a workshop for children ages 5 to 10. The kids learn the basic elements of choreography, but more important, get an opportunity to create a dance from their own inspiration. Their pieces are more complex than you might expect of children’s work, and include impressive choreography. “The parents’ words encourage me every year, so I have the need to return,” Jacobs said.
For many in the audience, attending every summer is a family tradition. Kathie Gibbs, whose daughter performed years ago, was there, as were her grandchildren last Saturday night. Gibbs comes yearly, she explained, “because there are always incredible dances; there’s no opportunity to get bored.”
Bender invites everyone to come see a performance of Built on Stilts at least once. “Come and check it out. It’s always the ‘feel good’ event of the summer,” she said. “There is something about the combination of styles represented in this festival and ages and the gorgeous space in Union Chapel and the incredible audience that makes this really a unique community dance festival.”
Remaining Built on Stilts performances run from Saturday, August 18, through Tuesday, August 21, at Union Chapel. Make sure to get there early; there’s a rush for coveted seats as soon as the doors open at 7:30 pm. Besides, you don’t want to miss Scott Allen Hershowitz’s electrifying drum circle before the 8 pm show.