Red wine and cigarettes, dirty jokes and skinny dipping, late night sorties onto the streets of Oak Bluffs in outrageous costume — the manifestations of Abby Bender and Brent Alberghini’s 14-year relationship tend toward the risky and risque. But 12 years ago their offbeat ideas of friendship and community also nurtured something of an Island institution, the annual Built on Stilts community dance festival. The festival begins its week-long run this coming Friday.
Interviews by Mike Seccombe
Abby: I met Brent on probably the second or third day after I came to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1995. I had just graduated from a really small school called Bard. I ended up here because a cousin of mine was here. I got a job at the Island movie theatre and on one of my first shifts, there was this little 17 year-old, scrawny kid. I was 22.
I remember he was wearing a long sleeved red and gray striped sweater. I think he had glasses on. He was lanky and tall like me. It only took a few days of working together before we began to hang out. We walked home after work. He was underage and I was living with my cousin who was also underage. I’m sure I said “Come on in I’ll give you a beer.”
Built on Stilts started in 1997. A [dance school] friend of mine Anna Luckey and I were not dancing much, so we got in touch with a few dancers we knew here, to put on a show.
That first year it was one night, with I think, seven choreographers. It was a smashing success. The next year it was two nights, and the next, three nights. Now it’s seven or eight and we have lots of visiting artists, tons of local artists, and it’s become an Island institution of sorts. Sometimes you don’t know a place needs something until it transpires.
Brent and I can’t even remember what he did the first couple of years, whether it was house lights or sound, but it was all jury-rigged in those days and took a crew of three or four to operate. He had no background in tech. But anyone could do it; you just had to be patient and focused and prepared to give huge amounts of time, for free.
I think he did it because he just believed it was doing something good for the community. And he was young and it was cool having these older friends.
Now it’s just Brent who pretty much does everything. These days, because the festival’s been up and running for so long, there’s a small budget, he actually gets paid.
It runs really professionally, I think — even though a lot of the performers are amateur, for want of a better word — because I’m a super Type A personality and he’s just incredibly responsible.
It’s not about money. I pay myself a minuscule stipend, enough so I can be here, because I can’t really now have another job. The real goal for Stilts is to cultivate a dance community. And it’s about getting together with your friends and having fun.
Now summer is the only time we get to spend a lot of time together because I’m in New York the rest of the year and he’s in San Francisco and Vieques [in Puerto Rico].
We sort of have a sibling-like relationship. I’ve always stayed in his house here [opposite the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs, the venue for Built on Stilts]. He lives close by in this beautiful house called the Crystal Palace; it’s a family home. I’m really close with his family.
We’ve seen each other through some tough times. Family deaths and divorces and relationship bust-ups.
We do all kinds of stuff together, go to the beach, talk a lot, drink a lot of red wine. He’s an incredibly good listener, but he’s also pretty opinionated, and he’s someone I can always bounce problems off — the conflicts and moral dilemmas. And he’s got a great sense of humor.
We’ve never had any real falling-out.
He runs a really smooth show. There’s occasionally little lighting cue problems, and they’re almost always on my piece. But that’s because I’m really demanding. I stretch the rules for myself. I’ll have like five blackouts in the piece and all this fancy stuff, so I don’t get really mad.
My career’s secure inasmuch as I run my own business. He doesn’t have a steady job at all, but he has an amazing way of making ends meet. He’s a true free spirit. I’m not.
He’s 31 now, but I still think of him as the kid.
Brent: I’ve spent every summer here my whole life. My parents bought a house here 35 years ago, for something like $25,000. A giant old, crumbling Victorian, called the Crystal Palace. They did it jointly with my mother’s parents. My grandfather used to have nightmares that the tower would collapse, it was so old.
“I worked at the movie theatre from when I was 15, and I met Abby there when she first came here, 14 years ago. That was a very formative summer for me; then I was this sort of jock basketball player just about to graduate high school. And I was also homosexual, which I didn’t quite have a grip on, didn’t really know or accept it. She made that transition very easy for me.
I mean, she’d been to this artsy school . . . but I didn’t know anybody at all. We spent so many evenings in this kitchen acclimating me to the idea.
It is up for debate if I was really part of it [Built on Stilts] the first year. I can’t remember that far back. But I started doing lights. It originally just required me switching a power switch. Someone else did sound.
After that I took on other things. Then I did some of Abby’s shows when she moved to New York city. I did something at The Yard a few years ago. And various other things, benefits and things. Now I do a lot for various organizations or artists I believe in, political figures. I’m thinking of doing one for Obama before I leave.
She’s been very influential in my development. She’s very articulate and can really support her views with explanations. She can back it to the nth degree. She’s really a well thought-out individual. Her passion is infectious and it’s driven me in a certain direction.
I am more and more [an arty person].
Our relationship has really centered around long summer nights spent drinking red wine and smoking endless cigarettes around the table in her tiny kitchen, though I gave up the smoke part in the past few years. I’ve spent every night for every summer for 14 years in that kitchen.
Where the magic happens between friends, I think, [is in] passing the time when we’re not trying to accomplish something, but dancing on the chairs in the kitchen in the middle of the night before running to the Inkwell to go skinny dipping. Or telling dirty jokes until we’re blue in the face.
We used to dress up with whatever clothes we could find in her family’s Island house, [which were] left behind by the hordes of family residents of years past, and have parades down Circuit avenue at the time the bars let out. Having a parade of freaks dressed in trench coats, various wigs, baseball gloves, sunglasses in the middle of the night, caused a few heads to turn as you can imagine.
Maybe it sounds silly or shallow to say our friendship is based around bringing out the dork in each of us but it’s true.
She’s a battle axe. I think it’s a good thing. I’m actually drawn to incredibly strong, independent, willful women. Maybe it’s a gay thing, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are gay icons.
These days I live a lot in Puerto Rico, in Vieques. I just built a house with a friend. It’s sort of an homage to my parents’ idea here — a place where family and friends can get together. After my father died, I had a little bit of money [but] not nearly enough to do anything here.
So I’m there part of the year; I’ve been building every year for the past four years. The idea was it would be an escape for people who make [art] work, but couldn’t afford to do it in New York city. So if you want to write a novel or make a painting, or just get away, I give this place free for one-month blocks of time.
I live the rest of the time in San Francisco in this beautiful old house in the Mission District with this amazing guy — an artist, writer, political activist — and I’m a gardener for the rich and famous.
I’m writing a screenplay now. And I’m politically active there.
But even though Abby and I don’t live in the same place anymore, every time we hang out, it just feels like home. We’re on the same page somehow, whenever we come back together. We don’t have to catch up, even. It’s just . . . there!
The Built on Stilts Community Dance Festival celebrates its 12th year with seven nights of free performances August 15-19 and 23-24 at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. Contact Abby Bender at 508-717-2887 or visit online builtonstilts.org for details.