Built on Stilts celebrates 23 seasons

From left, Lindsay Hany, Tessa Grunwald, and Meghan McDermott of the Immix Dance Project perform a dramatic rendering of “Lost.” — Dena Porter

Generally speaking, people don’t cheer, yell, laugh, and scream with delight at dance concerts. Come to think of it, the crowd does tend to do all of these things when part of the live television audience at “So You Think You Can Dance.” Especially when there’s a particularly peculiar contortion, super-high jump, weird spin, or pithy isolation. But cheer they do at Built on Stilts, the popular Martha’s Vineyard dance festival. 

Abby Bender is the magician who founded B.O.S. 23 years ago, and she’s been at it ever since. In the beginning, Bender, then in her early 20s, wanted a venue to show her own choreography and work with friends. Right off the bat, B.O.S. was a hit, and other dancers started clamoring to be involved. 

The festival has grown into a highly organized, extremely well-run, grassroots annual event. If you think there’s a contradiction in terms — organized, well-run, versus grassroots — you’d be right. But Bender is both counterculture and all-business-all-the-time. She’s one of the best producers I’ve worked with (full disclosure, I’m a New York City choreographer and director, and have shown work at Stilts), balancing artistic concerns with community outreach, education, and programming. 

“The most challenging part of running B.O.S. is programming,” Bender explains. “Every night of the festival is different, with 60-plus artists or groups usually performing twice throughout the run. It’s important to spread out the work in just the right way over the course of the festival, so that each night has considerable variety and flow, while accommodating out-of-town groups in consecutive nights, working around date conflicts, and keeping the mix of dance styles, ages, and abilities of performers and size of groups balanced. I avoid scheduling three belly dances in a row, having all the kids’ projects in one evening, or programming a show in which the same dancer is in five pieces. This way, our audiences, which often attend night after night, can enjoy an assortment of work, and we can ensure there’s a surprise around every corner, something for every palette. After this many years of programming dance here and in New York, I guess I’m pretty darn good at it.” Bender’s producing chops remind me of Ed Sullivan’s “really big shew.” 

Anna Luckey, who is also an original founder of B.O.S., met Bender when they were students at Bard College. Luckey now lives in “America,” but is still involved in the festival. She founded the education arm Stiltshop, where kids ages 5 to 10 learn to choreograph. These dances become part of the show, as do the works choreographed by the students of Advancedshop, for kids 11 to 15. 

B.O.S. has many alumni who come back year after year. Bender, now an elder statesman, shares her feelings on the continuum that is B.O.S. “It’s delightful to see a new generation of 20somethings taking on more and more of the dancemaking. Our goal is to encourage people to make time for dance despite the chaos of summer, to make dances with friends who love to dance for people who love to take in dance. It all gives me the warm-and-fuzzies.”

Bender honed her skills running Brooklyn’s Triskelion Arts for 17 years. Triskelion currently houses five rehearsal studios, two of which are also performance spaces. She now lives on the Island full-time, but happily Triskelion, under new management, is going strong. She says, “I became a year-round wash-ashore about three years ago, when my love affair with New York City and my longtime career there began to stagnate. These days it’s for the rich and the young, and I am neither.”

B.O.S. and Bender are an integral part of the Martha’s Vineyard dance community, and that’s saying something. There’s a unique legacy of the world’s great choreographers — in all kinds of genres — coming to the Vineyard at the Yard, founded in 1973 by Patricia N. Nanon, and the Vineyard Arts Project, founded 2008 by Ashley Melone. 

Additionally, there’s an extremely active community dance scene made up of people with fantastic national creds who chose at some point to call the Vineyard home. Some of the leaders, most B.O.S. alumni, are Sandy Broyard, Sally Cohn, Kathy and Bill Costanza, Laura Sargent Hall, Scott Crawford, Jesse Keller Jason, Jil Matrisciano, and longtime Paul Taylor Dance Company star Sandra Stone. One mustn’t forget the ubiquitous Carol Loud, who claims she is either 84 or 86. Or 34. Who will be dancing, once again, at B.O.S.

The packed audiences of every sort of construct and age, come and go casually through Union Chapel’s wide-open doors, mingle with friends, drop much-appreciated voluntary donations at the entrances, and buy hip B.O.S. T shirts. And then there’s the music, the dancing, and the cheering.

Eclecticism — absolutely. Entertainment — definitely. Egalitarian — for sure. Embraced by the building, the artists, their fans — and maybe you — all part of the charm.

on Stilts, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, August 8 to 11; Thursday, August 15, and Saturday and Sunday, August 17 and 18, Oak Bluffs’ Union Chapel, 55 Narragansett Ave. Doors open at 7:30 pm with drum circle and dancers’ warm-up. Performance 8 pm. Free. No tickets or reservations required. Visit builtonstilts.org.

This article by Wendy Taucher originally appeared on mvtimes.com.