Abby Bender has always been known for her creativity and versatility. The co-founder of the Built on Stilts dance festival on Martha’s Vineyard, as well as a dance company and performance space in Brooklyn, Bender has found her way around many challenges in her career. The pandemic has proven to be just one more difficulty that she’s faced and navigated in a few innovative ways.
Last summer, when the annual weeklong Built on Stilts festival had to be canceled, Bender asked some of the event’s veteran artists to participate in what she refers to as a “flash mob” happening. Each of the dancers and choreographers was asked to provide one movement or gesture, and then Bender created a basic conglomerative dance phrase to music by Brian Hughes, for people to perform at one scheduled time in their own spaces. On the Vineyard, small groups of people did the 20-minute dance routine outdoors, while others videotaped themselves dancing in points all over the globe. “It felt like a moment of togetherness during this time of isolation,” says Bender. A montage video of the flash performance can be found on the Built on Stilts website, builtonstilts.org.
Dancers were also encouraged to submit new dance videos, and those also remain available for viewing on the website. Bender’s first foray into dance film, a comic collaboration with Katie Federowicz Perez, is included among them.
This summer will mark the 25th anniversary of Built on Stilts, and Bender promises the festival will be back in full force, in some form or another, to celebrate this milestone.
Last October Bender and fellow dancer Jesse Keller Jason created an immersive Halloween spectacle that sent audience members traveling throughout the grounds of the M.V. Museum for a fun evening of storytelling, music, and dance. The event, titled “Unexquisite Corpse,” was the open-air solution to an annual Halloween-themed immersive dance event that was previously performed indoors.
Another project of Bender’s also had to be put on hold until people could gather together safely again. She and her cousin, Molly Coogan, have been hosting a game show–style fundraiser at the Oak Bluffs library for a few years. “Membership Down!” features three contestants in a zany sort of “Family Feud”/”America’s Got Talent”/trivia night combination with, variously, elements of “Shark Tank,” fashion show, and art show thrown in. Bender and Coogan have shown impressive wit and originality in creating the series, and just the right amount of silliness.
In February, the cousins, with the help of the Oak Bluffs library, hosted a Zoom version of the contest. Among other things, participants competing from home had to dance to a love song, pile on as many articles of clothing as possible, create and pitch a new product from things found in their immediate environment, and construct a hand puppet from items provided to them ahead of time in a sealed box. The participants, Andy Dickerson, James Jennings, and Jane Loutzenhiser, showed an abundance of creativity, as well as humility, as they responded to the on-the-spot challenges gamely.
One ongoing project of Bender’s which has lent itself well to the digital platform is her exercise class series. As a matter of fact, thanks to home participation, the dancer and instructor has been able to get even more creative with her classes than usual. She calls her cardio combo class “Sweatin’ With an Oldie.” When Bender first launched her Zoom classes last spring, she created a theme for each one. Class themes — accompanied by appropriate costumes — included superheroes, pirates, and the year 1984.
Now that attendance has fallen off a bit, Bender has dropped the themes for the most part, but still generally wears something imaginative, and always provides energizing music. The instructor describes the classes as high-impact, although participants at all levels can adjust accordingly. “It’s a slightly goofy, old-school cardio calisthenics workout,” she says. “It’s not complex. You don’t need to learn complicated dance moves. It’s more like an old school gym class, which, ironically, I hated.”
Anyone can join the fun, on a pay-what-you-can basis. The one-hour classes are held on Zoom every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 5:15 pm, and Monday mornings at 9:15 am.
Next up, Bender is collaborating with Jesse Keller Jason and Lisa Gross on an outdoor performance to be held in May. Other local dancers will be participating. Bender is also currently working on a dance film which she describes as “the story of a blue-footed booby and his socially isolated heartbreak.”
The pandemic has not slowed the indefatigable dancer, choreographer, and all-around arts innovator down at all. As a matter of fact, she’s enjoying the ongoing challenges. “I feel really lucky,” she says, “because I’m used to having to work a bit outside the box. I’ve never been a traditional artist.”
If you’d like to participate in Bender’s “Sweatin’ With an Oldie” cardio combo classes, you can email her at email@example.com, or send her a message through her Facebook page.