Chaos rules at Stiltshop, where day camp-style rehearsals prepare youngsters to participate next to older and more experienced dancers in Built on Stilts, the Island’s annual homegrown community dance festival. Call it Built on Stilts with a shorter attention span.
Built on Stilts was established in 1997 by Abby Bender and Anna Luckey as a showcase for local and national dance and choreography talent. It has grown substantially from a single-night performance in its first year to the six-day event that began on Wednesday and will spread over the weekend. In some years, the festival has stretched over eight days, making for long workdays for Ms. Bender, who remains the Built on Stilts director.
Stiltshop was born as a way to incorporate children into the Built on Stilts lineup of more professional dancers. “It’s an important mission of Built on Stilts to have these kids’ programs,” said Ms. Bender. The workshop invites kids ages 5 to 11 to participate in the Built on Stilts festival with basic choreography that allows room for improvisation and creativity.
Ms. Bender fondly described the program as “organized chaos,” and admitted that seeing the kids perform on stage brings tears to her eyes every year. “It’s a little different than a school recital because it’s a little bit more creative. It has a freedom to it,” she said.
In addition to the Stiltshop children’s workshop, Built on Stilts also holds an Advanced Shop for dancers ages 12 to 16. Ms. Bender directed Advanced Shop this year, which encourages dancers to actively participate in the choreography.
“This particular batch of kids is so strong,” she said of this year’s Advanced Shop lineup. The workshop explored experimentation, collaboration and creativity among more experienced dancers.
“It runs the gamut,” said Ms. Bender of Built on Stilts. The festival includes skilled professional work as well as more casual contributions from the children and teenage dancers in Stiltshop and Advanced Shop. “It’s an amazing range this year,” she added.
During one session of their weeklong rehearsal schedule, the group of more than two dozen children gathered in Oak Bluffs’ Waban Park to practice their bedtime-themed dance routine. Much of Friday’s two-hour rehearsal was spent trying to keep the attention of the energetic group of youngsters. According to Stiltshop choreographers Lucia Dillon and Eliza Green, the rehearsal was a bit more disorderly than usual because many of the young dancers had been absent from the workshop the previous day due to the rain.
“There is a lot of game playing,” said Ms. Bender of Stiltshop. But they all welcome the commotion, and kids revel in the opportunity to participate in the festival.
The group gathered in a clearing surrounded by several trees which did little to shade dancers from the heat of the afternoon sun. Parents stood at the perimeter of the haphazard circle of children, chatting casually among themselves while the two choreographers attempted to coordinate the dancers. “We have so much to get done,” said Ms. Dillon, addressing the playful group. She and Ms. Green were assisted by fellow dancer Teo Azzollini in managing the rehearsal, and all three young women were generous with words of encouragement for their young charges.
Ms. Dillon and Ms. Green use their personal experience to help guide them through the program.
“They were in Stiltshop [as dancers] when it first started, so they’ve come up through the ranks over the years,” said Ms. Bender. Last year, the two teenage choreographers acted as her assistants for Stiltshop and Advanced Shop. This year, she knew they were ready to lead a workshop themselves. “They have pretty much been involved with Built on Stilts every year since they were little,” she said.
Ms. Dillon and Ms. Green looked the part of casual Vineyard dancers at the workshop last Friday, dressed in T-shirts, leggings and bare feet. Many of the dancers were similarly dressed, with a few wearing outfits that looked like pajamas, perhaps to reflect the routine’s sleepy theme.
The two-hour session began with warm-up exercises, which engaged the crowd long enough to get everyone ready to focus on the routine. But the moments between the warm-up and the first practice run proved enough to distract the young dancers once again.
“Should we try our dance?” asked Ms. Dillon, calling the crowd back to order. Gradually, the group fell into position and began to follow the music, executing whatever steps they could remember. The young dancers were tentative about the performance at first, but quickly began to warm to the activity and to one another as the music picked up and their fellow dancers began to focus on their steps.
In between the practice runs, the two choreographers and their assistant conferred among themselves, discussing different approaches that might make the performance run more smoothly. The workshop is an equally valuable opportunity for the young ladies to develop their skills in choreography as it is for Vineyard children to explore fun and creativity in a comfortable, casual setting.
A visit to a Built on Stilts festival performance is sure to bring a different show each night. Routines from previous years have spanned dance styles from ballet to belly dancing, and often include other varieties of performing arts such as stand-up comedy, poetry reading and dramatic routines. Performance schedules are available online at the Stilts Web site (builtonstilts.org), or at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs where the festival is held.
Ms. Bender encourages visitors to come to the festival on multiple nights.
“You are never going to see the exact same show twice,” she said. “My favorite challenge of running the festival is spreading the diversity. There is going to be something for everyone in every show.”
The Built on Stilts festival runs through Monday night at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. Shows open with a drum circle at 7:30 p.m., followed by performances beginning at 8. Admission is free.