Ayodele Casel builds community wherever she goes, and City Center is no exception. As a performer, choreographer, educator, and collaborative artist, Casel works to—in her own words—"decentralize and expand creative opportunities and broaden the way audiences interact with tap dance.”
And that’s exactly what her work in this spring’s Artists at the Center is all about. For three evenings only in April, Casel shares her spotlight with a veritable who’s-who of the tap world today, curating City Center Comissions from nearly a dozen different artists. Pairing extraordinary tap dance artists at different stages of their choreographic careers—like Michelle Dorrance with Dario Natarelli, or Brinae Ali with Gerson Lanza—Casel has empowered these teams to create original work in conversation with each other. And she’s throwing her own brand new choreography in for good measure, bringing the evening’s total up to a whopping six World Premieres.
As Casel’s collaborator Torya Beard puts it, "The aim of the evening is to celebrate the vibrancy of today’s tap dance voices, and to dream into the future of the form." So we talked to four of the choreographer/performers Casel has commissioned as part of Artists at the Center to get a better sense of where they’re coming from, and where they want themselves (and the form) to go.
Who are your teachers/mentors? Who introduced you to tap?
Naomi Funaki (collaborating with Caleb Teicher): My mentor today is Ayodele Casel, but I have so many teachers who gave me inspiration in my life.
Caleb Teicher(collaborating with Naomi Funaki): For my first six years living and working in NYC, I danced with Michelle Dorrance, and she's been a huge influence on me [and is a fellow choreographer in this Artists at the Center evening, collaborating with Dario Natarelli]. My dancing is also very inspired by Dianne Walker, Sam Weber, and Jimmy Slyde. I grew up playing drums and wanted to be a Punk drummer, but I saw tap dance on Star Search when I was 10 and took my first tap class a few months later. And here I am now.
Jared Alexander (collaborating with Tomoe “Beasty” Carr): My teachers are everywhere, from the wind that brushes on my clothes as I walk, to the weekly call I have with my 99-year-old great-grandmother. The people that I would call my tap teachers/mentors, the people I’ve looked up to and gained perspectives from are: Ray Hesselink, Ayodele Casel, Caleb Teicher, Dormeshia, Myleen Snyder, Dolores Sanchez, Walter Sundance Freeman, Alexandra Damiani, Scott Jovovich, Lauren Gaul, Rhonda Miller, Jess Hendricks, Gerson Lanza, Lisa Hopkins, and Kristi Plass.
Amanda Castro (collaborating with Ayodele Casel): Growing up, I was introduced to tap dance by my local dance school teacher, Stacy Eastman, in North Haven, CT. I was first guided in New York by Jared Grimes, Dormeshia, Jason S. Smith, Derrick Grant, and Ayodele Casel. I have learned so much not just from the people named, but the musicians and tap dancers that have stood next to me on the wood. Forever gratitude.
Where do you see your work fitting into the broader tap landscape?
CT: The tap landscape is really broad, thankfully. There are so many artists doing vastly different things, and I think that speaks to the vibrancy of the form. The tap dancing I do these days is most connected to the lineage of vernacular jazz movement (I spend a lot of time dancing within the Lindy Hop scene), and I also do a lot of tap dance in concert with musicians (Conrad Tao, Regina Spektor, etc).
AC: I see my creative work living in places that allow people to see the multiplicity in our experience. I see my work living on a small branch of this ginormous tap dance tree where we can come and find connections between past, present, and future via the Caribbean and the Puerto Rican American experiences.
NF: Since I grew up in Japan, I have a different background and identity [from many of my fellow performers]. So I would like to be something unique as a tap dance artist.
JA: I was introduced to tap dance by attending my cousin’s dance recital when I was three years old; I tapped my mother on the shoulder and asked if I could do that. Dance has been a part of my life every single day. Whether researching our ancestors who moved the art form; reading texts/media; or listening to stories from our elders, there is always more to be inspired by.
How has working with Ayodele affected your practice?
AC: When you find someone who resembles you and your culture in the dance form that you love, how could you not be affected? [Before Ayodele] I never had someone see the multiplicity in my practice as something to be embraced, all while sharing tools of navigation. As a teacher, she constantly shows me grace, leadership, and trust in new ways that have changed how I approach everything that I do when working in community. And as a friend, Ayodele reminds me that we got this, even when it gets tough. She reminds me that our joy and optimism are never in vain when they are fueled with our history and our dreams for a better future.
JA: I’ll always remember something that she told me early on: “If you’re performing and you have a moment to educate the people (your audience) ... do it, because that will allow them to appreciate the art form even more!” Ayo is someone who truly indulges in experiencing joy as often as she can, but not just for herself. She spreads it. She spreads joy and allows others to experience it. She is able to listen and collaborate on so many different platforms. She is always willing to learn and hand down. She walks into the room like a superhero, because she is a superhero.
CT: I met Ayodele at a tap festival when I was 11, and I've been a longtime admirer of her work/her personhood. I still remember the first pieces I learned from her! I'm looking forward to reuniting with Ayo in an artful way, and I'm particularly grateful that she's paired me with Naomi for this program. Naomi and I have been working together since 2017 (when she moved to the States from Japan), and I relish any opportunity to dance with her. She's brilliant.
NF: Every time I work with Ayodele, I feel true trust from her. I want to try to live up to her trust.
Ayodele Casel Artists at the Center runs April 13 to 15. Tickets from $35.