Talking about Tap, today we are joined in the studio by Ayodele Casel, award winning tap dancer, actor, and choreographer of the current Broadway revival of “Funny Girl” and her collaborator and partner, the Director, Torya Beard. Ayodele and Torya were first at the ArtLab in 2019 and have been advisors to its development since then. They return to Harvard for the premiere of their newest performance, 'Ayodele Casel: Chasing Magic' at the American Repertory Theater. Leaders of the Arts both on stage and off Torya is the executive director of A Broader Way, a youth leadership and nonprofit with the mission to amplify the power of women and femmes through the arts. Undercover their magic as we discuss how tap dance has shaped their world and how they plan to use it to improve the lives of others.
Link to Ayodele’s residency page on ArtLab website: https://artlab.harvard.edu/Ayodele-Casel
New York Times Review of Ayodele Casel: Chasing Magic: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/09/arts/dance/review-ayodele-casel-chasing-magic.html
Link to purchase tickets: https://www.joyce.org/ayodele-casel-chasing-magic
Link to Torya’s biography: https://americanrepertorytheater.org/bio/torya-beard/
Link to A Broaderway Foundation: https://abroaderway.org/
Link to Kristian Hardy’s biography: https://artlab.harvard.edu/people/kristian-hardy
Works in Progress is recorded and produced in the Mead Production Lab, located on the traditional territory of the Massachusetts people, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge. The show is hosted by Bree Edwards and Kristian Hardy, engineered by Kat Nakaji, edited by Jemma Byrne, and produced by the ArtLab at Harvard University with help from Thinkubator Media. Theme music by Kicktracks and Gvidon.
For more information about the show, the ArtLab, and the artists featured, visit artlab.harvard.edu. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram by searching ArtLab at Harvard.
Episode 5: Ayodele Casel and Torya Beard
BREE EDWARDS: Welcome, and thank you for joining me for Works in Progress, a podcast about artistic research, inspiration, and collaboration. My name is Bree Edwards and I'm the co-host and the director of The ArtLab. In this podcast, we will speak with contemporary visual and performing artists who are grappling with pressing issues and transforming ideas into action and art.
The ArtLab is helping to create the conditions for the arts to flourish at Harvard and Works in Progress brings those artists and their ideas to you.
In this episode, we are joined by Ayodele Casel and Torya Beard. Ayodele Casel is an award winning tap dancer, actor, and choreographer who has been called an artist with cool rhythmic tendencies and a tap dancer of unquestionable radiance.
Torya is a choreographer, producer, and the executive director of A Broader Way, a youth leadership and nonprofit with the mission to amplify the power of women and femmes through the arts.
Welcome back. You were the very first artists to join us in the ArtLab back in February of 2018 when the ArtLab was still a bit under construction. It's an honor to be able to reconnect with you today. You've returned to Harvard for the premiere of your new performance, 'Ayodele Casel: Chasing Magic' at the American Repertory Theater. The show stars Ayodele and has been directed by you, Torya.
The New York Times said, "Casel's joyful and generous spirit is as vivid as ever," and having attended the opening night performance, I completely agree. You are partners in life and work and it's exciting to be here to talk to you about both.
By way of introduction, how do you describe the work you do in the world?
AYODELE CASEL: Thank you, Bree. Thank you for the introduction. Thank you for the invitation. I would say that I always introduce myself as a Black and Puerto Rican woman who loves tap dancing, who wants to spread and share all the love and joy that I have in my body [LAUGHS] to everyone.
TORYA BEARD: Yes, I also want to share my gratitude to you for this invitation. I'm so happy to be here. And I usually what I say is, I'm a champion for artists and artistic expression and all of the things that come about when that is supported. So I'm going to stick with that description.
BREE EDWARDS: Nice. I would like to talk a little bit more about your biographies, your identities, and the role that it plays in the work that you do. I've heard you say that your identities are your superpowers. Can we talk a little bit about how you define yourself and how it inspires the work that you're making and the work that you do?
AYODELE CASEL: One of the beautiful things about tap dancing is that it's so individual and it's like it really forces you to investigate like who you are and what you have to say within the art form. And I think that I immediately went to, well, where did I grow up? I grew up in Puerto Rico. I grew up in the Bronx. How-- and, I mean, I think that's true of all art. Like who you are and your experiences are just naturally influenced the work that you do.
But for me, I always-- the minute I knew that I wanted to perform and I knew that I wanted to celebrate that upbringing and to celebrate the things that, I don't know, that made me happy, that-- and that can be like music and that to me is storytelling. That to me is giving voice to the experiences that I had growing up and to name like the people that influenced me, whether it was like my family members and/or artistic inspirations.
And so, I don't know, I feel like I'm really grounded when I'm in the center of that. And I love sharing it. And I feel like that's one of the things about, I don't know, that I think about being alive. [LAUGHS] The point is to live but to also share with other people like your experience and like and to find a common ground within that.
BREE EDWARDS: Thanks, Ayodele. So, Ayodele, just to follow up on that, in Dance Informa, you said, "Learning to tap, my dance heroes were people of color and that really cemented and fulfilled something for me in regards to the art form. Although I always loved Ginger, I thought I could never really be her." So thinking a little bit about legacy, what would you like your legacy to be?
AYODELE CASEL: I believe that I would like my legacy to be one of generosity. To, I don't know that. I hope that I have invited people to unapologetically share who they are and to feel safe enough to give to the moment, whatever that moment was. And so, yeah. I would say one of generosity, generosity of spirit and love, yeah.
BREE EDWARDS: And, Torya, you and Ayodele have a unique way of working together. Is there a legacy or a model that you feel like you're modeling for either the younger women at A Broader Way? Or what would you like your legacy to be?
TORYA BEARD: What I try to model, I suppose, is the idea of the collective over the one. I'm not quite as interested in the individualistic approach to things or elevating one above the people that support them in the work that they're doing. I know it's hard not to do that, because that is the way things are set up for us. It's like it's set up that way.
But I think I was exposed-- well, I know. I was-- I worked in an environment during my training in my early years as a dancer that was really rooted in community with Kevin Iega Jeff, Gary Abbott, and Linda Spriggs who founded the dance company that I was a member of. And there were three artistic directors of a company. And that was-- it was normal to me because it was one of the first companies I had been a member of and so because I know that different voices and different leadership styles make things better.
I think that has a lot to do with the way Ayodele and I work together. And I'm really obsessed with collaboration as a concept and also in practice and how that can support creativity and accountability. So I think that has a lot to do with the way we work together.
And then as far as my legacy, I feel like I would like to be known as someone who reminded people that they are enough and what they have to say is valuable and valid.
BREE EDWARDS: Thank you. Thank you. In your work, I recognize the rigor and the physicality and the commitment to the form. But there's also such a generosity and trust and joy that I see come across both in your relationships and on the stage when you're dancing alone. But I also see that practice being developed in community. And you've both touched on that. I'm curious if you have a personal philosophy or if you found that there are any tenets to successful collaborations or in creating your creative community.
AYODELE CASEL: One of the things that I feel Torya and I make a real big point of doing when we begin any process with any of our collaborators, is community and respect. For us to create an environment where we are in constant conversation and checking in with them, checking in, how are you feeling? Like regular life human being things. [CHUCKLES]
You know, like, when you take care of people, then they bring their best. They feel like they can bring their best. They trust you. And I know that I value and respect every single person that gives, is generous enough to want to be in any process with us. And I'm very vocal about it. Like they all know that. I probably say it too much. They're probably like, Ayodele, yes, we know. You love us. Yes, we know. [CHUCKLES]
But I don't know, I just feel like that's, to me, that's so important. And I have found that we get the best work when people feel seen, and heard, and respected.
TORYA BEARD: I mean, if I could just add one other thing too. As a performer, I oftentimes think about my experiences being in other people's work. And because I have many of those experiences, I think the ones where I grew the most and where I felt most empowered were the times when I was invited to really participate and not just learn choreography and perform it back.
So I think a big part of what we try to do is say, even though it may not be each dancer or each musician's vision, they have a vision and they can bring their full artistic selves to that, to live inside of our vision. And I think that is really challenging. But I think we've managed to do that, to say, how does your expression live inside of this container that we have set up here? And that, to me, is really exciting.
BREE EDWARDS: Ayodele, you recently completed the Francis B Cashin Fellowship with the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. Welcome back. Your work is rich with references to tradition and to legends of dancers, many of whom have been under-recognized by the history of tap dance. I wanted to ask the question, what does research look like or feel like to you?
AYODELE CASEL: To me, and especially in tap dancing, which is-- traditionally it's oral history-- [CHUCKLES] and so a lot of our research is in oral, just recounting, and storytelling, and people's memories of what it was like during this time and with this person. That was kind of like part of the, not indoctrination, but like that was one of the things that I learned very early on as a tap dance student.
And for me, going into Radcliffe with the intent of researching more about these particular figures that I speak about often, I knew that I wasn't going to find much more than probably I already knew about them. Because I feel like I've done a lot of-- I have done a lot of that in my life work with my-- in service of my practice.
But I wanted to see if I could find, if I could just place them in history so that then my research sort of expanded from maybe not just the dance world or the tap dance world, but OK if we're talking about Jeni LeGon in the 30s in Hollywood. Then it expands a little bit more in America. So now we're talking about American history and research of what the communities were like for Black people in that time. What were the laws in this country?
What were the-- yeah, one of the wonderful things I found while I was here at Radcliffe was the slave codes of 1740. Like to find that document and to read it! This is a document that we referenced really often like when the drums were taken away from Black people here. But like we reference that in tap dance stories. Like we know that is the origin. But I had never read the full document. And it was astounding to see all of the laws and the language put in place to really strip them of everything.
And even the wording, "and be it further enacted, and be it further enacted, and be it further enacted, and be it--" And like it was really like-- yeah. I mean I was kind of stunned. I don't know why. But I was. The magnitude of it, like just the layers, and layers, and layers was, I don't know. That was-- I was happy to have sort of discovered that while I was here.
But, yeah. But the research looks like expansion. It looks like beyond the dancer, beyond the dance life and into the world, into this country too.
BREE EDWARDS: And that's so powerful and it's also a good reminder that scholarship research doesn't always involve the written word, that the oral word is important. And sometimes the tools of the researcher is an audio recorder. That's a really great reminder. Thank you.
After the break, we'll be joined by Kristian Hardy who is an undergraduate research fellow at the ArtLab and a sophomore at Harvard College pursuing a joint concentration in Theater Dance and Media and African-American studies.
[MUSIC PLAYING WITH SOUND OF TAP DANCING IN THE BACKGROUND]
KRISTIAN HARDY: Hello, everyone. Welcome back. My name is Kristian. I'm a sophomore at the college, studying Theater Dance and Media and African-American studies. So I'm really glad that you, Ayodele and Torya could join us for to talk about some interesting things and all the cool work you all are doing.
So the first question that I wanted to ask you all is about, I think when I was researching both of your careers and the work that you're doing, a common mantra or quote that came up to me was like, to be the change, because I feel that's something that you all both embody very well.
And I was wondering, as both of your careers have grown, you all remain extremely tethered to your local communities and the people that make up those communities through opportunities like New York PopsUp and A Broader Way. And I was wondering why is that work so important? And do you all view that engagement as a form of social justice or public service and, if so, expand on that a little bit, please.
TORYA BEARD: So nice to meet you. Thank you so much for this and for all the work you've done leading up to this. Yeah, for sure. I think any time you venture to interact with another human being-- truly and deeply-- it is in service of social justice, you know. And I feel like where we come from, like if we mine that, if we continue to mine that and really like continue to return to that, everything, like our artistic practice is deepened by that, but also our sense of our place in the world continues to be shaped and informed by that.
So I never really thought of being detached from it. And then, as it relates to A Broader Way, I think yes, indeed. The idea that listening, really listening, and not-- sometimes I think when we become teachers, or educators, or mentors, or whatever, a lot of the study and the practice of that is in delivering information to somebody else. How can we tool the lesson? How are we measuring whether or not-- the efficacy of what we're doing, right?
However, when we stop, and we allow ourselves to be taught by the student or by the mentee, everything starts to change, right? Things start to broaden. And I feel like when people have an expanded sense of their place in the world, and when they're tied to their communities, and when they can celebrate where they're from, it does do a lot to change their interactions with people in the world, right?
So if you have 100 people doing that, it starts to shape and change our society and how-- and I think when we talk about change, at least for me, I think about it a lot on a micro level and not like-- so all the legislation is shifting now and it doesn't just happen like that. It really does happen with sitting, and spending time, and having conversations, and answering questions, and leaving questions unanswered, all of those things, right? And affirming-- affirming people's thoughts, affirming their beliefs, affirming where they're from. So there's a long way to say, yes and yes. [CHUCKLES]
KRISTIAN HARDY: That was perfect. Ayodele, do you have anything to add to that?
AYODELE CASEL: Sure, I mean, yes and yes and yes. Look, mine is going to be a much shorter answer that starts with, yes. And I will say that Torya and I both met many moons ago, teaching at Mind-Builder's Creative Arts Center in the Bronx, which was sort of an after-school/performing arts outlet for young people in the Bronx, primarily of Black and Latino descent. And as a 15-year-old, I found myself there when I wanted to be, when I knew that I wanted to get more arts training. I went myself as a 15-year-old. And when I became a professional, I went back to teach there, because I felt like I wanted to give back to an organization that gave so much to me.
And with A Broader Way, one of the reasons that I maintain, that I'm still with the organization, is because I know how much it meant for people to invest in me as a young person, as a young Black and Puerto Rican person. And I just feel like I want to invest in those folks as well, those are the young people that look like me that were-- they are me in a way. I love that aspect of my life.
KRISTIAN HARDY: I heavily relate to that. I feel like-- I'm now in my second year of school but even still like there's moments where I think about all of the people who helped get me to this point. And it is so important to constantly say in connection and pay it forward because they didn't have to do that for us, but they did, and that's such a beautiful gift.
And I love that both of you brought up mentorship and the people that helped you as you were becoming the professionals you are today. Because I wanted to dig into the importance of that relationship between a mentor and a mentee. And it's a very fragile relationship that can go in a variety of different ways. And I was wondering if you could speak to how mentorship, or, I guess, expand, because you've touched on it a little bit-- on how mentorship has impacted both of your lives as mentees when you were younger or maybe even still to this day, and then now as mentors to a lot of other people.
AYODELE CASEL: Thank you for that. That's a really thoughtful thought and question. Gregory Hines was one of my mentors and for those who might not know who Gregory Hines is, he was an incredible artist, tap dancer, actor, singer of both stage and screen. And I adored him and looked up to him so much.
And when somebody of his caliber, as I perceived as a young person, I'm like, oh, my God, he's like a movie star! When somebody like him really took the time to know me, and to see me, and to encourage me, and to support me, and to validate me, it did wonders for me. Not just as a young person, but even now to this day.
And he has sadly been gone from this Earth for over 17 years, and I still feel his impact to this day. Whenever I'm feeling doubtful or I'm questioning something, a direction that I'm going or how I'm representing something, I think about him and I think about his words and I take them very, very seriously. And I know that I don't take for granted the power that people have in each other's lives, and especially adults to young people.
Words matter. Intention matters. How you answer somebody, how you remember someone's name, how you ask them how they're doing and what their dreams are, how you help to support that. So that's really important. It was important for me and it's still important to me. There are older people, even peers, when I hear the encouragement-- even being in this Zoom right now, in this podcast, like said that you care enough to want to even an answer of mine. Like that means a lot. And so I know what it means to me and I feel like it's like my-- I answered Bree's question earlier, what do you want your legacy to be? Like I feel like I want people to know, I want young people to feel like that. To feel-- to have my experience, and even a better one. So it's everything.
TORYA BEARD: Yeah, that was beautiful, Ayodele. I think ugh, I have lots of thoughts about mentorship. And sometimes it is just as simple as listening, right? I feel like the thing that's been like going, playing over and over in my mind, since we've been here, is like making the time to take the time. Because I think so often we don't feel like we have time to listen, to engage, to really clear the path, to get to have a real moment with somebody, because we're in a rush and we only have this much time. And maybe that's not professional or I've never seen it done that way before.
And I think when people stop to make the time to take the time with you, that can go a really long way. And so I've had people that have just done that and it changed my life, just the fact that they asked me a question and waited for me to answer. And not just in passing, how are you doing? And keep walking, you know what I mean?
But one of the things that I've been thinking about lately is the idea of vulnerability and transparency because I think, for me, those are the things that helped make bonds between me and people who've mentored me, and me and people that may consider me a mentor. It's not like not positioning myself as the queen of everything. I don't know everything. I haven't had every experience, right? And so sometimes just sharing a time when I didn't feel strong, or when something went wrong, or I made a bad decision, or something now when I look back and I can say, Oh my gosh. I wasted so much time like harping on this one thing. And then I realized 20 years later that it kind of doesn't matter anymore.
Sharing those things I think have helped me get closer to people and also help me to move past it for myself. I think mentorship-- and not to discount the importance of peer mentorship, because I think we always think, oh, it has to be like an older person and a young person. And I think those relationships-- I'm really obsessed with it. I bring young people into everything I do.
However, I do think it's important to have people that are your same age-- or near your age-- that have similar experiences that you can volley that relationship back and forth with, right? And I've had some peer mentors that have really changed and shaped my life both as an artist and as like an arts administrator and different things. So I can talk all day about this so I'll just shut up right now, but I hope that gives you some insight into how I think about it.
KRISTIAN HARDY: Yes, most definitely. Those both were two extremely beautiful answers and also brought up a lot of thoughts for myself. I feel like, in college, and as a student, a lot of people think that networking, whatever that may mean, has to be with people who are already like in the position or are already doing the thing they want to do. And I think something that's becoming a lot more prevalent and a lot more talked about is networking and building those relationships and connections with people that are your classmates, or that are in your organizations, and that you guys are currently going through the same things together. And so I really agree that having those peer mentors and peer relationships can be especially fruitful.
Going to my last question, as I was researching both of y'all's careers, I was really inspired and amazed because I love how you both have done a variety of different things with your art form and didn't stick to just one path or one specific discipline. And I feel that oftentimes as women of color and as artists of color we're told or made to feel as though we can only be one specific thing. And both of your colorful careers have truly defied all of those expectations and is an example of how artists today are carving those unique paths to fill all their diverse passions and interests.
And with all that being said, I was wondering, what advice would both of you give to aspiring artists and students who feel as though they're being made to feel boxed in or unable to dream beyond like one or two things that like their career advisor is telling them, or that their parents are telling them?
AYODELE CASEL: Torya, I almost feel like you should go first because, well, Torya is the very definition of all of the colors in the rainbow as it relates to [CHUCKLES] career paths. And I just-- actually, one of the stories that I love the most about your life is all of the different things you do. So I wonder if you would just like if you would begin answering that.
TORYA BEARD: One thing I will say is, think of it from the inside out. And the inside being yourself, being your heart, being what drives you, being what fills you as a human. And then let that guide you. As opposed to saying, from the outside in, oh, I want to be this or I want to be that or I want to be called this or whatever it is that people will put on you from the outside.
I had people in my life that had very-- what I thought was like-- very exciting careers. And I don't know, I always, I wanted to do a whole bunch of things when I was like in high school. I was like, I want to be a fashion designer. I want to do marketing. I want to be a dancer. I want to do all these things, right? And I didn't really think about how. I guess that's what it is. Saying if, I do this, is going to happen. And if I don't do this, it won't happen.
I didn't really approach it like that. It was like I just went wherever I saw an opportunity at the moment. I took the opportunity. And then my life the path just sort of like led me to where I felt like I was meant to be at any given period in my life. And I did experience some degree of like shaming about it, especially because when I grew up, I heard a million times, jack of all trades, master of none. What does that mean? And I was like, oh, I don't want to, I don't want to do that.
So like even though I'm pursuing dance, I'm like in college for dance or I'm dancing professionally, if I have other interests, doesn't mean I'm not devote it to dance. And I was just like, I don't care. Nobody else is living my life. So I'm just going to go. And having confidence and knowing that whatever is your sort of like primary course of study.
Let's say, for me, it was dance. It has informed everything else I've done. Like every lesson I learned in dance, I can-- I've been able to apply in all of these other areas. Right? It's not, how shall I say it? If you truly give yourself over to something, to become a master at it, there are so many life lessons and so many skills that say people may not point out for you that you're gaining. But you can do that for yourself.
And so once I started doing that for myself, I was like, oh, I can totally do that! I can direct. I can do staging. I mean, as a choreographer, it's what we do. We have the vision for where the bodies are on stage and then you just put your attention on it and continue to develop. And the next thing you know, you've developed this whole other skill.
So I say, go where your heart leads you, stay as long as you feel like you need to, but don't feel like you have to stay forever. And be fully expressed. Try everything. Do everything you think you can do. And because, just like I think there's enough for everybody, so if I get something, it doesn't mean I'm taking it away from somebody else because there's enough in the world for us all. I think we are enough. We are big enough as individuals to hold everything we want for ourselves. You don't have to negotiate. Like, oh, if I want to pursue this, maybe I won't be able to do that. I do believe you can do it all.
AYODELE CASEL: I just love how even in a show like Chasing Magic that we're currently doing, like you have-- who you are as a dancer shows up in how you shape the piece. Who you are as a leader and a director, executive director, shows up. Who you are in your fashion, like the way you-- when you were doing fashion for a long time. Like your opinions about what we wear and how we look and what that look looks like. It all is related.
And I would say just to piggyback on that, is to just, yeah, to stay open and to follow the curiosity, the thing that keeps kind of like nagging at you. Yeah, sometimes we go in with the plan. Like, to be honest, I went into NYU Tisch School of the Arts as an acting major. I was very definitive about that wanting to be my thing. And that is part of one of my identities.
But my sophomore year, I took top class for the first time. And tap just like-- something about it was calling me and it literally took over my life in the most beautiful way, in unexpected ways. And had I been like, no, tap is not the thing. I am here to be an actor only, then I would have shut off a really wonderful life.
And so I think that-- to go into something open minded and to feel-- don't box yourself in. So, so often we go, I don't have time for this. Life is long. Life is so long. And you can do-- there's time to do all the things. And, like Torya said, just because you do one thing now, doesn't mean you have to do it forever. Maybe it will be because you love it and you still want to do that. But you got to stay open. Stay open and enjoy it. And know that every twist and turn, it really does serve the final vision.
Like somewhere in my early 30s I decided that I loved photography and I became obsessed with photography, as obsessed with photography as I was with tap dancing. And then I was a photographer. At first, just for fun. And then it became like a profession. And I was shooting like dance companies at the Joyce Theater and portraits and all kinds of things. And it really actually helped me survive. Like it literally gave me money [LAUGHS] to be able to live and support myself until the art making sort of became the thing again.
So it's all valuable. Embrace it all.
KRISTIAN HARDY: Wow. I don't-- I hope the listeners are catching all of that because I feel very grateful to have heard all of those gems. I haven't thought about-- a lot of the things you were mentioning, I haven't necessarily thought about life in that way before. And so that is very insightful and also a little comforting because it feels very overwhelming having to figure out how everything is going to fall into place, especially in only four years. So I'm very grateful for that and to Ayodele and Torya for joining us today and sharing a little bit of your life and stories with us. So thank you both so much.
[BOTH] Thank you.
AYODELE CASEL: You're wonderful.
TORYA BEARD: Thank you so much.
BREE EDWARDS: Thank you for listening to Works in Progress, a production of the ArtLab at Harvard University, located on the traditional territory of the Massachusetts people, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge. This podcast is recorded and produced in the Mead Production Lab.
For more information about the show, the ArtLab, and the artists featured, visit artlab.harvard.edu. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram by searching ArtLab at Harvard. I hope you'll join us for the next episode.