‘Creative playground’

Built on Stilts comes to Union Chapel.


A beloved Island tradition, the Built on Stilts festival, is back again August 11 through 13 and August 20 through 21, filling Union Chapel with creativity and fun for — and largely by — the community.

As the Built on Stilts website says, “Built on Stilts is a creative playground for both children and adults, from beginners to professionals, representing diverse stylistic backgrounds. Over the years, the event has showcased ballet, modern, hip-hop, jazz, African, tap, ballroom, breakdance, belly dance, line dancing, martial arts, movement theater, circus arts, mime, improvisation, spoken word, and, of course, a bit of stilting.”

Each night will begin with the stirring tradition of a drum circle, with Island musicians playing rhythms that stir excitement from the moment you walk into the chapel as everyone takes their seats. When the show draws closer, the dancers come out and warm up together — and some audience members have been known to join in, so moved are they by the mounting energy. Abby Bender, co-founder, director, producer, choreographer, and performer, curates each evening so that a different mix of performers is present. The vitality of all the performers and willingness to share their artistic talents is what links the pieces and evenings together — as is the enthusiastic, unconditional support of the audience.

Bender says that this summer, “We’re back in full regalia. It’s slightly smaller than in past years, I think in large part likely due to the housing situation here. We used to have a lot more visiting artists and now there’s nowhere for them to stay. But it will be a great show with about thirty different point people.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Built on Stilts project was spearheaded by Bender and Anna Luckey in 1997. Bender says, “We went to Bard together, graduating in 1995. A couple of years later we were both here for the summer and hankering to get back to making work. We put together a night with five other choreographers whom Anna knew. We did one show at Union Chapel. This was before anything was happening there and it was just used for services. I was living across the street and sitting on my porch and hearing the organ.” Struck by the idea to perform there, they went over to the sexton’s living room and signed a one-page contract. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Each year, the audience and the number of performers grew. It has consistently ranged from five to eight nights for the last 10 or 15 years. Bender reflects that each summer is a little different: “As artists, we all evolve and age. We have some kids who were five when they started dancing, and now they make their own work. But the essence of it hasn’t changed. We hit on it early on about what the Island needed and desired.”

Bender says that, actually, what is different is how busy everyone is now in the summer. One of the challenges over the years has been the increased demands on people’s time. Whether it’s family and childcare, the need to work longer hours to make ends meet, or increased traffic and issues with parking, they all make it harder to carve out the time to make a piece. “But,” Bender notes, “we all make time for it during the craziest time of the summer. And we do plan on remaining here.”

This is reassuring since attending Built on Stilts is reliably heartwarming as you get swept up in the community coming together to support everyone’s artistic expression. “If you’ve never been, you should come,” Bender says. “It will brighten your day; restore some of that much-needed faith in humanity.”

Shows are for all ages and free, although donations are encouraged. No tickets or reservations required. Doors open at 7:30 pm. Performances start at 8 pm and run approximately one hour without intermission. Detailed festival schedule for each night and more info at builtonstilts.org.