All the Right Grooves

The fun mash-up of styles at the Built on Stilts dance festival in Oak Bluffs has a universal feel-good appeal.

Built on Stilts is one of the ultimate joys of summer on Martha’s Vineyard. If you’ve been in Oak Bluffs in mid-August, you’ve likely heard the joyful noise of a drum circle booming out of the open doors of Union Chapel. It is a signal to the world: Come in. Something is happening here.

Walk toward the chapel and you’ll see children and adults in colorful costumes, calling out to passersby. Mount the steps and peer within to glimpse the drummers, surrounded by dozens of dancers using the rhythmic beat for a warm-up. Audience members, seated five rows deep around the periphery, are welcome to join the dancers in the warm-up, if there’s room. In Built on Stilts, pretty much everyone is welcome pretty much everywhere.

At the doorway, cheerful kids will hand you a program and welcome you inside. Take a seat. Above the stage is a Shel Silverstein–like cartoon of dancing children, and the stick-letter logo: Built on Stilts.

Stay for the show – free, donations welcome – and you will enjoy a high-octane, highly varied series of performances. Many are modern dance, but you never know what’s around the corner. One piece ends, the lights come up for less than fifteen seconds, and before you can read the program menu, the lights go down and the next piece begins. By the end of the evening, you may have seen a comic theater piece with audience participation, teens strutting to pop music, a ballroom dance medley, belly dance, salsa, hip-hop, adorable toddlers imitating weather patterns, a virtuoso ballet solo – and then it’s over. Come the next night, and it’s a different show. Built on Stilts will run eight nights this year, and no two nights will have exactly the same acts.

“It’s as if a giant spinning spaceship hovers over Oak Bluffs each August and several hundred magnificent creatures descend through the steeple of Union Chapel to offer us some evidence of their souls,” says Brent Alberghini, the stage manager and technical director. That might sound like hyperbole, but everyone involved with Built on Stilts speaks of it in glowing terms.

“I love it – I really do. It has become what my summer is all about,” says dancer Laura Sargent Hall of Edgartown. “No matter what else is going on, half of July and all of August is all about being at rehearsal. It feeds my soul.”

“I love doing purposeful work with people I love,” says holistic health counselor Roberta Kirn, a longtime West Tisbury resident who now lives in Vineyard Haven. “It’s so much more fulfilling than just having social time with people. We’re actually making something. It’s fulfilling and fun – it’s adult play.”

It’s easy to get a little carried away by the energy of a Built on Stilts performance; even non-dancers find it so creative and fun they’re often inspired to be a part of it.

This comes as no surprise to Built on Stilts co-creator and Director Abby Bender. “What makes it interesting is how it makes the audience feel. I sit outside, smoking my cigarette, watching the audience watch the show, and I think, ‘This is amazing. How did this get to be so amazing?’ I can’t put my finger on how that happened.

Show time

This exuberant project began some sixteen years ago. Dancer-choreographers Abby Bender and Anna Luckey had graduated from Bard College in New York. Anna was from the Vineyard, and Abby’s relationship to the place was through a relative. Abby recalls, “We started to get antsy about making work again, so we decided, let’s just do something.” Her dormitory at Bard backed onto a ravine and was supported by wooden posts; the joke on campus was that the dorm was “built on stilts” as a thrown-together student project. It seemed like a good phrase to describe a semi-improvised, thrown-together project on the Vineyard too. Anna called a handful of Vineyard dancers, among them Christina Montoya, Laura Sargent Hall, Sara Williams Ahren, Judy Kranz, and Sandy Stone. They met and, as Anna recalls, made a proposition: “We’re interested in putting on a show, so we’re looking for choreographers and dancers. Let’s all kick in fifty bucks for one day’s rental somewhere.”

But where?

Abby was staying across from the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. She pointed to it and said, “What about that space?” She looked it up in the phone book, called the sexton, Richmond Greene, went to his house, and signed the contract. That first year it was very intimate and everyone danced in each other’s work. There were seven choreographers and probably no more than twenty dancers. Last year there were more than two hundred, ranging in age from five to seventy-six.

The entire annual budget even now is less than $10,000 – including nominal stipends for Abby and a few other staffers. The primary expense is rent, paid to the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which bought the chapel in 2002. Since then the trust has made extensive improvements, so it’s a nicer performance space, although there are restrictions they did not have before, such as no more roller-skating acts. The budget is partially covered by $25 registration fees and by kids’ workshops, which cost $80. But financial survival mostly depends on people buying T-shirts and making donations at the door. (Full disclosure: Built on Stilts accepts donations, but it’s not a registered nonprofit organization; Abby decided the expense and logistics necessary to achieve that status are not worth it.)

That one night, that first year, Built on Stilts had a full house. And by the second year – when Anna started workshops for kids that culminate in performances – it was already turning into something bigger, although it took another six or seven years before it felt like “A Vineyard Summer Event.”

“It’s so hard, when something builds so organically, to figure out how it all went down, but I have always felt a big reason that Built on Stilts became what it did is because of who Abby is,” says Laura Hall. “She’s such a talented choreographer who demands the best of herself and her dancers...and at the same time she’d always had a place in her work for anyone. From the very beginning, there was a true belief in it being a community event.”

For most of the past ten years, Abby has been overseeing the festival at large. Anna has been away some years, and in 2007, she moved off-Island. When she came back to perform in 2010, Anna had to adjust to the fact that many participants did not know her. “I almost felt like a fly on the wall – a lot of people didn’t know of my involvement and investment, so I got to hear all these conversations and it was awesome – everyone loves to be here!”

Not your average recital

Following its first year, kids became a big part of Built on Stilts. Roberta Kirn has a personal appreciation for that fact. She had been a professional dancer for ten years but had not danced since moving to the Vineyard in 1989. She happened to be walking by the Union Chapel during a show in 2000. “I saw Anna and Abby and all the others, and I thought, if I could do that, I would do that. So after the performance, I walked up to them and said I’d love to get involved, and they were completely warm and welcoming.” As the mother of two young girls, however, Roberta could not take on a new project without her children. She recalls, “Anna said, ‘Well, that’s no problem. I’ll do something for you and your kids.’” The next year, Roberta and her two daughters, Marta and Teo Azzollini, performed with several other children and adults. Roberta and her daughters have danced together in Built on Stilts every year since.

The workshop for dancers younger than twelve is called Stiltshop. Led by adult choreographer/dancers, children create and rehearse a dance to be performed during the festival. “I’d lay out a very clear structure for the kids,” says Anna. “I would tell them where they were moving and with whom, but they’d create the movements to fill that in with.” Now, just as Anna had hoped, former students Lucia Dillon and Eliza Greene, who are in their early twenties, have taken on the leadership role in Stiltshop.

Advanceshop is a program for twelve- to sixteen-year-olds, who practice two hours a day for a week and a half. “I work them so hard and they enjoy it,” Abby says. As with Stiltshop, the goal is to create a dance with a structure, and the kids create the moves. “There’s all this inhibition when they’re fourteen years old,” she explains, “so I give them images – thunder, mountain. The images give them something to focus on.”

It’s a superb experience for the teenagers. “I loved the program always because it provided such a stress-free environment to do what you love,” says Devon Lodge of Oak Bluffs. A nineteen-year-old ballet prodigy, Devon has been working with Built on Stilts since he was little and is now studying dance at Juilliard. “Nobody is judging you and everyone is there to support you, no matter what you’re doing onstage. It’s about everyone’s mutual love for dance.”

Designing performances

The scheduling process is something of a science. Abby plans for each act to run at least twice during the eight-night festival, run over two long weekends. First she considers the availability of off-Island artists. “Then I’ll spread out the local big groups. For example, the salsa and the ballroom – the ones that are more demonstration dance – you want to spread them out because they have a certain kind of energy. Then I also have to deal with things like, some of us are in each other’s pieces so you can’t put them back-to-back. You don’t want more than one belly dance in one show – you just don’t. I don’t want to see three duets in a row. Hip-hop gets spread out, because there is not much of it. We need locals to be spread out too, because half of our audience is friends and family of the performers. [In the application process] I ask how many dancers, age group, how will the audience feel – is it live music, is it lively, is it reflective? And of course,” she continues with relish, “you gotta have a good closer. It has to be something that is going to leave people psyched. You also need a good opener. And you need your palate cleansers.”

With so many variables, programming is a meticulous and complex process. It gets complicated by eleventh-hour dropouts, which necessitate some scrambling to fill the holes. Abby does the scheduling on her own, but for the shows, Brent Alberghini helps out. The assistant stage manager is sometimes an Island teenager, sometimes a member of Abby’s Brooklyn nonprofit organization, Triskelion Arts (she splits her time between the Vineyard in summer and New York City the rest of the year). “They’re yes-men who help us run errands,” she says with a grin. Each show gets one run-through, shortly before it is actually performed.

Abby enjoys putting things other than straight dance onstage. In addition to modern, ballet, jazz, ballroom, and ethnic dance, Built on Stilts pieces have involved music, hula-hoop dancing, and avant-garde theater. For example: “Debate Society is a theater group, friends of mine, brilliant – they came up two years and did seven-minute plays. One year they played buildings, two of them, a man and a woman, and they were dressed in period outfits. It took you a long time to figure out they were buildings. I enjoyed that very much.”

Over the years, Abby has developed a sense of what things will work best in the Built on Stilts environment. “Sometimes the more sophisticated stuff that takes itself seriously doesn’t work as well for this audience,” she says. “There are some very good choreographers who come once, and then they ‘get it,’ and when they come back, they choreograph for Built on Stilts – they’ll add humor, they’ll add some absurdist elements. We need that, because there is a lot of very serious dancing. And I think that’s why salsa works, or even ballroom – it’s very flirty, it’s out there. Whereas you see [ballet soloist] Devon [Lodge] and your breath is taken away, but you don’t think, ‘Oh, I could do that.’”

As she prepares for year sixteen, Abby radiates contentment. She says, “I’m open to whatever happens, but Built on Stilts has grown so much, I don’t think it needs to grow any more. I don’t ever want to have to curate it; I think this is a pretty good model. I feel like it’s just right.”

This year’s festival takes place at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs August 9 through 12 and August 18 through 21. For more info, visit