Review: Ayodele Casel shares the floor with varied visions of tap

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Review: Ayodele Casel shares the floor with varied visions of tap
The tap dancer and choreographer Ayodele Casel, center, with Jared Alexander, left, and Izaiah Montaque Harris in “Where We Dwell V.2” at City Center in New York on April 13, 2023. The work was one of several selected by Casel for her program as part of the Artists at the Center series. (Rachel Papo/The New York Times)

by Siobhan Burke

NEW YORK, NY.- Tap dancer and choreographer Ayodele Casel often tells the story of learning, for the first time, about the African American roots of tap. She grew up loving Ginger Rogers, but it wasn’t until college that a friend introduced her to names like Jimmy Slyde, Bill Robinson, Gregory Hines and the Nicholas Brothers.

“It opened my whole world,” she said on the conversation series Black Dance Stories in 2020, “because finally I realized that this thing I was so in love with and drawn to, even though I didn’t know that much about it, was really rooted in ancestry and a legacy that was mine.” From then on, she vowed to present tap and herself “with the utmost integrity, in honor of my ancestors, in honor of all the progenitors of the form.”

That story came to mind watching Casel’s characteristically generous and vivacious program at New York City Center, which had its premiere Thursday as part of the Artists at the Center series. The two-act show begins with five short new works, each by a pair of choreographers selected by Casel. After intermission comes her “Where We Dwell V.2,” an expanded version of a piece she presented at Fall for Dance in 2021. While the evening roves among the varied aesthetics of its contributors in a way that at times feels scattered, a consciousness of history grounds and guides it.

The first sound we hear is a staticky recorded voice with an almost instructive refrain: “Not to watch but to listen to.” The curtain rises on Brinae Ali laying down rapid rhythms, a prelude to offerings of song and spoken word, and music by the terrific live band (Anibal César Cruz on piano, Raul Reyes on bass and Senfuab Stoney on drums). Choreographed by Ali and Gerson Lanza in collaboration with Cyrah L. Ward, “Hoofer’s Delight” looks back to look forward.

“Memories shape who we are,” Ali says, sharing recollections of her family and of renowned tapper Baby Laurence, whose voice we heard earlier. Ward, barefoot and dressed in white, tends to a sort of altar between lush, trembling eruptions of movement reminiscent of baptismal ritual, the pulsations of her body echoing those of Lanza’s feet.

The other short works seem to branch from the sturdy roots of this first piece, proposing distinctive visions of what tap can be.

“Little Things,” by Caleb Teicher and Naomi Funaki, features Teicher on a pink toy piano, crouched on the floor and plunking out a ditty that elicits crisp, succinct steps from Funaki, Jared Alexander and Amanda Castro, the three lined up neatly in a row.

“Interlaced,” by Alexander and the freestyle dancer Tomoe Carr, known as Beasty, mixes movement styles in a bracing concoction of tap percussion and house beats.

In “El Camino,” by Castro and Casel, the ever-enrapturing Castro, shoeless in a voluminous white skirt, is like the eye of a storm around which three tappers gather.

Closing out the first act, “The Man I Love,” by Dario Natarelli and Michelle Dorrance, finds Natarelli swooning alone to the Gershwin classic (played live by cellist Derek Louie), his lyrical torso as expressive as his feet.

Casel makes a few fleeting appearances in these pieces, including a cameo with her wife, Torya Beard, the show’s director, in “Little Things.” While she’s more present in the second half, her energy igniting the stage when she first arrives, she seems intent on sharing the spotlight, both with current collaborators and tap forebears.

When the curtain goes up on “Where We Dwell V.2,” it’s not on Casel but on Hank Smith, the eldest cast member, who remains a drifting but vital presence throughout the work. Projected on a scrim in front of him, a fast-paced montage of images invokes both the joy and pain in tap’s history, its connections to dances of Africa and blackface minstrelsy, Hollywood and slavery. A cascade of voices includes James Baldwin’s: “How much time do you want for your progress?”

With music and arrangements by Crystal Monee Hall, and powered by her sumptuous vocals, the work continues to channel resistance and revelry. In one pared-down and piercing section, Hall recalls Baldwin when she sings: “When? How long?” The only other sound is the tremoring of Casel’s feet, in what seems like an outward manifestation of deeply internal emotions.

A bit slapdash in its structure, “Where We Dwell V.2” has plenty of fun and flash, showcasing the strengths of its eight other dancers. You exit the theater basking in its glow. But this roiling moment, simultaneously crying out and looking in, leaves an even more lasting impression.

Ayodele Casel

Through Saturday at New York City Center,

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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