From the perspective of Abby Bender, founder and director of Built on Stilts, the Island’s annual dance and performance festival, there is one simple reason we dance.

“It’s to celebrate being alive,” she said.

The festival marks 25 years this summer as it returned to Union Chapel for three nights this past weekend and continues next weekend from August 21 to 23.

Each August, Union Chapel become dance-central. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Dancers of all ages and experiences take the stage during the festival, with a lineup of 12 to 13 dances each night. According to stage manager Brent Alberghini, the core mission of free performances with no barriers to entry benefits all the performers, no matter their backgrounds.

“I think it’s a really good opportunity for more experienced artists to experiment with new work, something that maybe they wouldn’t show to other venues,” he said. “And for amateurs, it’s a really great experience for them to have a venue where they can really develop their talents, where they probably wouldn’t have an opportunity to otherwise.”

The festival has taken on deeper resonance this summer after the pandemic shuttered many theatres and performance spaces the past year, leaving many dancers aching for the chance to showcase their craft live to an audience.

“It feels so good to dance with a purpose again,” said Piper Blau.

A dance in your heart is all it takes. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Before Friday’s show, a drum circle opened the evening, beckoning the audience to Union Chapel and providing a spirited soundtrack for the performers as they warmed up.

Ms. Bender darted around the Union Chapel lawn, untangling a pair of tights, fastening a loose elephant tail onto a costume and rationing out face paint. Around her, dancers applied zombie-esque eyeshadow, braided each other’s hair and loosened up with foam rollers.

As the lights went down inside the chapel, Ms. Bender addressed the crowd.

“We’re here to show you that dance is inside all of us, that it can be healing, hilarious, curious or complex, utterly spontaneous or painstakingly crafted,” she said. “It helps us express ourselves and it can teach us how to be ourselves. Dance connects us to each other and helps us live as fully in the moment as possible.”

Remaining nights are August 21-23. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Friday evening’s performance included 13 dances spanning a vast array of styles and genres. Lucinda Kirk twirled an umbrella to It’s Raining Men. Elizabeth Merida danced in silence. Jesse Jason wove shimmering, jewel-toned sheets of fabric as she moved along with Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting.

One of the largest numbers of the night was Under the Big Top, a circus-themed performance that had young dancers dressed as ringmasters, lions, elephants, acrobats, clowns, weight lifters and human cannonballs. They capped off the act with Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off.

Many of the dances challenged convention. One invited audience members to join in and groove along with the performers. Another had dancers channel their inner cicada and don pool noodles to replicate insect-like movements.

No matter the approach, each dance earned a rapturous response from the audience. Due to Covid, the festival asked that crowd members clap or stomp instead of hooting or hollering. Over and over again throughout the evening, a cacophony of applause and pounding feet filled the chapel.

Built on Stilts returns to Union Chapel August 21 to 23. Doors open each night at 7:30, beginning with a drum circle. Dance performances begin at 8 p.m.

More pictures.