Transcript, Episode 68: VR Dance, MacKenzie Scott’s Grants, and Ayodele Casel and Torya Beard

[Jump to Ayodele Casel and Torya Beard interview]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Amy Brandt:
And I’m Amy Brandt.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Amy’s back for another round this week. In today’s episode, we will talk about how philanthropist MacKenzie Scott included a whole bunch of dance groups in her latest massive round of donations, and about the ideas that motivated Scott’s giving. We will look at the burgeoning world of virtual reality dance, its pros and cons, and how it might or might not disrupt the performance ecosystem. We will discuss dancer and sociologist Carmela Dormani’s essay about how community dance is the real star of the In the Heights film. And then we’ll have our interview with Ayodele Casel and Torya Beard, renowned dance world creatives who are partners in both art and life.

I don’t usually play favorites this way, but I’ve got to say: this is one of my favorite interviews in Dance Edit Podcast history. They are, first off, both of them, just brilliant. They’re also every bit as generous in an interview context as they are in their artistic work, which, if you know anything about their artistic work, you know it’s always rooted in generosity and joy. I’m just so excited for you all to hear their perspective on what makes their partnership work, and how dance can speak to issues of race and identity and politics. It’s such a fantastic conversation.

But before we get into all of that, we actually have some exciting news of our own to share. We are about to launch a new premium audio interview series, which we are calling The Dance Edit Extra. The idea here is that the Edit Extra will act as kind of a complement to this podcast. We’ll still be doing our weekly round table news discussions—they’ll still drop every Thursday, that’s not going to change—but our interviews with dancers and choreographers and educators, those are going to become their own independent episodes, which you can subscribe to separately. And it’s a change that we think is going to give these great conversations a little bit more breathing room, some more time and space. Anyway, The Dance Edit Extra we’ll be launching very soon, and you can find out more about that at thedanceedit.com.

Now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, which is super duper jam-packed this week. So let’s go.

Courtney Escoyne:
All right. So Juneteenth is this Saturday, and there are a number of dance-centric celebrations planned. Here are a few that are on our radar. The Ailey All Access Juneteenth program went live last night, as you’re listening to this, and will be available for streaming for the next week, with excerpts from Rennie Harris’ Lazarus, a 1972 film of Judith Jamison in Cry, and the company in the “Rocka My Soul” section of Revelations. Ailey Extension is offering a free West African class on Saturday at noon Eastern. The National Choreography Center at the University of Akron is premiering REFRAME/REMNANT/RITUAL, a series of short dance films by Ananya Chatterjea, Paloma McGregor, and Tamara Williams, on Saturday at 3:00 PM Eastern on YouTube. 651 ARTS in Brooklyn will kick off its celebrations with a full weekend of dance film screenings, both outdoors and online, featuring WATA and Charles O. Anderson’s (Re)current Unrest, Marjani Forté-Saunders’ Memoirs of a… Unicorn: Blueprint, and the premiere of Cyborg Heaven, an examination of the Black urban experience through house, ballroom culture, and hip hop. Step Afrika! presents a virtual celebration on YouTube and Facebook Saturday at 8:00 PM, with newly-filmed iterations of some of its classic works. Central Avenue Dance Ensemble presents A Night at Club Alabam, a vintage nightclub floor show, online Saturday at 1:00 PM Pacific. And Lincoln Center’s multidisciplinary Juneteenth celebration will include dancers Brian Harland Brooks, Tomoe Carr, and Ayodele Casel, all directed by Torya Beard, this Saturday at noon. There’s a lot going on. I’ve probably missed a lot of it, but, yay!

Margaret Fuhrer:
A lot going on. And a lot of it happening online, so people, no matter where you are can participate, which is also great.

Amy Brandt:
Swiss public broadcaster RTS has reported that Ballet Béjart Lausanne has been placed under audit over allegations of drug use, harassment, and abuse of power. This comes a week after the company’s affiliated academy, the Rudra Béjart Ballet School, fired its director and stage manager and suspended classes for the forthcoming year due to “serious shortcomings” in management. Apparently this is not the first time the company has come under audit. Similar allegations were made in 2008, although no changes were significantly put in place.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Clearly, there is a lot to parse here, so we’ll link to some coverage that explains a little bit more completely what’s going on in the show notes.

Courtney Escoyne:
And Dance Data Project published its artistic and executive leadership report, detailing the gender distribution at 100 ballet companies and the pay gap between male and female leaders. At the 100 largest companies, women artistic directors are paid 60 cents for every dollar their male counterparts received, and 80 cents to the dollar in executive director roles.

Now there are lots of other statistics to unpack insight here, but most notable was the way that former New York City Ballet ballet master in chief Peter Martins continues to skew numbers. In the fiscal year that ended June 2018, his total compensation was an excess of $1.1 million, a number that is 1.5 times larger than that of the next highest-paid artistic director that year, despite him having retired in January 2018, the middle of that. And in the following year, during the entirety of which he was retired, his total compensation was 1.3 times that of the next highest-paid artistic director. Now, it could be part of a severance package, those details aren’t known, but it has definitely raised a lot of eyebrows.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And we’ll link to Dance Magazine‘s analysis of the report for some more context on all that information, too.

Amy Brandt:
The Paris Opéra Ballet has promoted Korean ballerina Sae Eun Park to étoile, the company’s highest rank. The opera house director Alexander Neef made the announcement last week, following a performance of Romeo and Juliet in which Park starred in the title role. She joined Paris Opéra Ballet in 2011 and is the company’s first South Korean principal dancer. She previously danced with the Korean National Ballet and spent one year with the ABT Studio Company.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yay! Congratulations to her.

Courtney Escoyne:
Huge congrats. And the massive artistic director shift continues with the news that Cathy Marston will be the next director of Ballet Zurich, succeeding Christian Spuck in summer 2023. And though there’s been no official announcement, Spuck will reportedly be heading to Staatsballett, Berlin.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m really excited to see what Cathy Marston ends up doing in Zurich. As director of Bern Ballett a few years back, I know she was all about commissioning and making new works. So that might be the case in Zurich too. It’ll be exciting to see.

Amy Brandt:
The annual Dance Against Cancer benefit will be live and in-person this year on June 21st, and will be in New York City’s largest ticketed in-person dance event since the beginning of the pandemic. The performance will feature a slew of dance stars, including Tiler Peck, Hee Seo, Lloyd Knight, Ayodele Casel, Matthew Rushing, and Dance Against Cancer co-founder in New York City Ballet star Daniel Ulbricht. Also notable is that Kevin Boseman, the brother of late actor Chadwick Boseman, will abe performing. He was a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company and Alvin Ailey, and he is also a cancer survivor. This year, the live show will be held at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park, and it will also be live-streamed. Proceeds go to the American Cancer Society. And you can find out more information at dacny.org.

Courtney Escoyne:
And dancer and co-host of “The Talk” Amanda Kloots has a new memoir out about losing her husband, Broadway star Nick Cordero, to COVID-19 last year—a story that many of us watched unfold in real-time on Instagram last spring and summer. By all accounts, a riveting read.

Amy Brandt:
Netflix just released the trailer for the film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s largely autobiographical musical tick, tick… Boom. It will be directed by none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda, with choreography by Ryan Heffington. Andrew Garfield will star as Larson, who, as many of you know, is the genius behind the musical Rent, and who tragically died the day before the show’s off-Broadway premiere. The film will open in theaters and premiere on Netflix later this fall. So be sure to tune in.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Lin-Manuel continues to be absolutely everywhere. But from the looks of that trailer, he and Ryan Heffington have a very different creative vibe than the In the Heights team did. So curious to see where that led them.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mm-hmm. I also just would love to have been in the room when Ryan and Lin met for the first time. I can’t fathom what that energy was, but I’m intrigued by it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
“Energy” was exactly the word I was going to say—those are two very different energies meeting, maybe creating great things.

Courtney Escoyne:
And we are rounding out our roundup this week by recognizing more dance world losses. Former Australian ballet star Lucette Aldous died at age 82. Bella Malinka Dall, a dancer, choreographer, and educator who taught for decades at the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, died at age 98. And longtime Paul Taylor musical director Donald York passed at age 73.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Another week of heavy losses. So for our first round table segment today, we want to discuss a major piece of mainstream news, which is that philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, formerly Mackenzie Bezos, just announced another $2.74 billion in giving, which is bananas. This is actually the third time in less than a year that she’s announced a big group of grants. But what’s notable, at least from our perspective, this time around is that several of the 286 total recipients are dance organizations.

Scott revealed the list in a post on Medium. It focuses on arts nonprofits and groups working to combat racial discrimination. And it includes Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Alvin Ailey, Ballet Hispánico, Collage Dance Collective, Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance, and Urban Bush Women. That is a list.

We don’t know the exact amounts of all the donations, but DTH did reveal that their gift was $10 million, their largest single gift ever. So it seems like we’re talking about game-changing amounts of money here. We just want to get into how and why Scott went about selecting this group of recipients, and about what this news says about both the larger world of charitable giving and also the larger arts funding landscape.

Amy Brandt:
$10 million is certainly a game-changer. In my own experience, I worked for a company that received a million-dollar donation, and we put on a brand new production of The Nutcracker. This kind of substantial gift can really do wonders and go very far in these organizations. So it’s really exciting to see. And it also is exciting to see that the dance community was remembered, and particularly these organizations.

So in her blog post on Medium, which is sort of interesting in and of itself, the way she goes about her philanthropy—it’s not through a foundation, it’s through her as an individual, and she kind of makes an announcement on Medium. And in that blog post, she talked about, while she was sort of explaining all the different organizations and reasons why they were selecting the ones that they did, she talked about how arts and cultural institutions can really strengthen the communities that they’re a part of and foster empathy and reflect identity, advance economic mobility, and improve academic outcomes. I’m just sort of reading this off of her blog post. And I really do think that these organizations do that. They’re vital parts of their communities and are often overlooked.

Another thing that’s interesting about this is that there are no strings attached to these donations. She is giving them complete autonomy on how to spend it. Foundations often kind of earmark where they want the money to go, but in this instance, she’s just saying, you know where this money needs to go, I trust you to use it in the way that works best for you, which is really great, I think.

Courtney Escoyne:
I think something that comes up often when talking to, say, individual artists who receive this kind of unrestricted grant: it is absolutely freeing. It allows you to focus on whatever it is you need to focus on rather than saying, “Okay, we got this grant. So now we have to hit these specific benchmarks that we were given when we applied for it. We have to put on this specific new production.” Oftentimes that actually creates more work, which further straps the company in various ways or the individual in various ways. So unrestricted grants like this are absolutely incredible.

And something that I know I have heard when talking to individual artists who get those is understanding if you are getting this influx of money for the first time, how do you deal with this in the most financially responsible way that you’re not going to get completely messed up at tax time? And things like that. So the hope is that these organizations already have an infrastructure in place that’s going to allow them to make the absolute most of this, something that I kind of wish would also be happening with this philanthropic effort, which isn’t necessarily the case because it this is not a foundation. Is there additional support being provided, in case these organizations could use it, in terms of figuring out how to best capitalize on this? I think there are pros and cons here for this not being a foundation-based thing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And there’s been some other criticism of Scott too for not being more generally transparent about her selection process—because she’s not a foundation, she doesn’t have to do that, so it’s kind of up to her how much she discloses about that. And also for not using her wealth—this is more broadly speaking, but—not using her wealth to more directly counter the influence of Amazon, the company that got her these billions. Some people are saying she should be investing in think tanks or policy organizations that are actually shaping policy in ways that could have a large scale effect on inequality, which—that’s all valid. But I think the bottom-up approach that she’s taking is also critically important. I mean, supporting these arts groups who are out in the community every day, doing boots on the ground work that uplifts and transforms and fosters empathy—not that I’m biased, but come on! There’s so much value in that too.

Courtney Escoyne:
And there’s also something to be said for, if you look at the way that grants tend to be awarded and the way that donations tend to work, you are more likely to get more grants and more donations if you can point to, “Hey, look, I already got this particular support.” And a lot of these organizations—for all that, as far as we’re concerned, they are the best of the best, we love what they do, they do such important things, they’re so significant to the dance community and the communities they exist in—but from a philanthropic perspective, they’ve not necessarily always been funded at that level. And we’ve seen other initiatives over the past year from The Ford Foundation, from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, trying to shift these inequities in funding, trying to shift the conversation about who “deserves funding.” And so this—hopefully not only is it going to make like an actual, real, appreciable difference in what they’re able to offer and sustain, but also in terms of what future gifts and grants they’re able to get.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, hopefully it’s snowballs.

Amy Brandt:
I’m looking forward to seeing how they use the funds.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It really is going to be transformative for these organizations. The fact that they included—obviously, there’s some really big name brands in there, like Alvin Ailey, of course. But the fact that like IABD, for example, was also included—they so often get sidelined in these conversations, despite this critical work they’ve been doing for decades. The fact that they’re in there feels like a good indicator of the depth of research involved on the part of Scott and her team. So, a lot to be excited about there.

Next, we’d like to unpack a feature that ran in the Financial Times earlier this week about Boston Ballet’s experiments with virtual reality. The company recently commissioned three choreographers to either create from scratch or redesign ballets specifically for viewing with the VR headset—to sort of tailor their works to the strengths and also the limitations of this medium.

And that raises a lot of questions about the potential of VR dance. Could it become its own sub-genre, a different way of thinking about performance and the relationship between dancer and spectator? What possibilities does that technology open up?

Big caveat here: we should note that Boston Ballet is far from the first dance company to experiment with VR. It’s not even the first ballet company to do so. There’s a whole world of immersive dance makers out there. But the story is a good way into an idea that it does feel sort of newly urgent, maybe, thanks to the pandemic.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. So as you pointed out, Margaret, this is not a new thing in ballet. Back in 2016 and 2017, it seemed like everyone was doing some sort of VR experiment. Dutch National Ballet had something. English National Ballet produced a section of Akram Khan’s Giselle to be viewed in VR. The Royal Ballet snow scene was done through VR. So there’s a lot of experimentation that’s already been done in this field. And also, beyond just VR, getting into augmented reality, which is a similar but different thing that I’m not going to get into here because I don’t know nearly enough about it to speak about it intelligently.

But something that really struck me though in this conversation was talking about like, what if we got beyond VR and got into haptics, where you can start dealing with things like scent and touch and all of the things that I think for a lot of us, we don’t necessarily think about being part of the experience of physically going to see a dance show, but could be a part of it? If you’re watching a dancer and through a VR headset and seeing them right in front of you, but not necessarily feeling their feet moving on the floor, or feeling the rush of air as they move past you, is it the same experience? I would argue not.

Now, of course, there are limitations to consider. The way you have to choreograph for VR is completely different, because there’s a whole 360-degree view thing going on, and everything’s choreographed around a circle, and it’s very complex. It’s a whole different set of skills. But then also it does bring up issues of access. Because, on the one hand, it becomes accessible to—I could be sitting here in my apartment and experiencing a ballet by a company that’s miles and miles and miles and miles away from me without having to leave my home. But also, I have to have this very expensive Oculus headset in order to experience it. So accessibility becomes the question here.

Amy Brandt:
I also wonder about the big picture. When you watch a performance from the stage or even on film, you get to take it in as the whole picture. And when you’re in it, within the piece—I’m sort of interested in how a choreographer would approach that, because it’s…the message could get fragmented if you’re only watching one person, say, for part of it, you might miss what’s going on behind you. And how do you navigate that as a choreographer? Or is that part of the experience, that you can watch it over and over again from a different perspective and get something completely new each time?

Courtney Escoyne:
This is such a weird pull—it’s going to sound so weird: I was going through the Dance Magazine archives, and I found an essay written by Gene Kelly talking about filming the ballet sequence in An American in Paris. And he was talking about how when you’re choreographing something in a theater, you have to accept the fact that every single member of the audience is going to be seeing a slightly different performance because of where they’re sitting and the angle they’re sitting at, and what they choose to focus on. Whereas if film is going to contribute anything, you get to essentially control the spectators by using the camera.

Margaret Fuhrer:
You have all the power.

Courtney Escoyne:
Right. And he was saying, if film was going to have any contribution to dance, that’s what it has to be. And so it’s really interesting to now be arriving at a place 70 years later where we’re talking about a situation where, yes, choreographer and cinematographer are controlling the dancer, but because of VR I can now actually go anywhere. So it’s just the biggest “Yes, and…”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Exactly, you’re handing some of that power back to the audience. I want to come back to the idea of access, too. Because naturally, Sydney Skybetter was quoted in this article, of course. And his quote had to do with how disruptive technologies have been a part of dance for a long time. Like, the stage, the proscenium stage itself, was a piece of disruptive technology when it first appeared, which is interesting.

But what was more interesting was that Sydney actually on Twitter later clarified that he had been taken a little bit out of context, that what he was actually talking about was how all performance-related technologies raise questions of access and inclusion. Like, who has the means, as Courtney was saying, to try out VR headsets? For that matter, who has the means to try out proscenium stages, or pointe shoes? So, interesting as these experiments are, what Sydney is saying is that VR isn’t going to be the future of dance until a much broader range of dance organizations and audience members have a realistic way of accessing it.

Amy Brandt:
It’ll be interesting to know how companies handle that. I’ve only experienced VR one time. I had a friend who has had an Oculus that I borrowed, and it was cool, but it’s probably not something I would go out and buy myself. It was actually pretty funny because I played this game where you’re—basically, you go up in an elevator, and the elevator opens, and you’re standing on just like a metal two by four, so, you feel like you’re 200 stories up.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That sounds terrifying!

Amy Brandt:
It is terrifying! I was completely frozen, sweating, being completely irrational because I didn’t want to fall.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That like a metaphor for performance in some way, too.

Amy Brandt:
I just don’t know how common they are. How many people out there actually own one of these things?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, lots of interesting questions there.

All right. So last up today, we have one more discussion about the In the Heights film. And I know, I’m sorry, we are all In the Heights, all the time these days. But Dance Magazine just published an essay by dancer and sociologist Carmela Muzio Dormani that offers a different and, I think, really valuable perspective on why the film’s dance scenes are so important to its storytelling.

Dormani is professional salsa dancer whose research focuses on the politics of everyday culture in cities. So she’s basically exactly the expert who should be analyzing the dancing of this movie. And she applauds the film for highlighting the dances created by New York City’s Black and Latino working-class communities, these dances that people from Washington Heights actually see and do all the time. Her argument is that focusing on those dances drives home the film’s central anti-displacement narrative in a uniquely effective way. Gentrification is threatening to push members of this community out of their space, and instead, we see them literally filling that space with their own joyful movement, which is kind of beautiful.

Not to say that Dormani is uncritical of In the Heights, and we should discuss her hesitations, too, because I think in some ways they actually relate to the broader conversation happening right now about colorism in the film. There’s a lot to get into here.

Courtney Escoyne:
So this is definitely another one of those stories where we’re kind of just here to encourage you to go read it in its entirety. There is a quote that I would like to read from this: “While there is plenty of Broadway-esque pageantry in the big musical dance numbers, the real magic of the film is that it foregrounds dance styles that were created and nurtured in New York’s Black and Latino working-class communities, and uses those movement traditions to showcase community members occupying physical space. In a show about displacement—poor people’s removal from neighborhoods to make room for wealthier residents—taking up space becomes a form of resistance. Filling that space with joyful movement becomes revelatory.” That’s it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, my paraphrasing of that in the intro wasn’t really paraphrasing. It was almost direct quoting, I’m realizing. Because that quote, that’s totally it.

Courtney Escoyne:
And it’s talking about styles that came from immigrant traditions that were brought to the city, meshed with the hip hop traditions that were unfolding themselves in 1970s and ’80s New York City against this backdrop of social unrest and fiscal crisis. Hip hop was birthed in this time period, and also not just music, but also visual art and performing art that was happening on the streets, on the subway platforms, like that is so much the beating heart of New York City and particularly these neighborhoods. And that’s what is making this film move. And that is so important.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I love the way she calls out the club scene in this movie in particular, because it has not received as much press coverage as the giant production number of “96,000,” even though it is absolutely as impressive from a dance perspective. And the fact that the choreography team brought in Eddie Torres Jr., and Princess Serrano, who are like New York City mambo royalty—I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again—to do the film’s Latin choreography, of which this club scene is the centerpiece, and the fact that they highlighted not the standard on1 salsa, but instead on2 salsa, which is New York City salsa, that is what happens in the city—that’s an immediate indicator of knowledge of and respect for the actual New York salsa community.

Courtney Escoyne:
That’s verisimilitude and we love it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes, yes, absolutely. And I’m just going to take a minute here to explain the difference between on1 and on2, because as somebody who for a year immersed myself in salsa so this is something that I can’t not talk about. [laughter] So the idea with on1 is that you’re taking your first step on the first beat in the music. So it’s one, two, three…five, six, seven. For on2 salsa your first step is on the second beat. So it’s one, two, three…five, six, seven. And it’s actually the same footwork pattern, it’s the same feet stepping at the same time, but the accents are totally different in a way that instead of dancing on the music, you’re dancing inside the music. People also call it on clave, because you’re stepping on the clave beat. It’s so much more intuitively musical. And that’s what they’re showcasing in this big club scene, which is it’s just great.

The other thing I wanted to talk about was, Dormani does note that making that clave beat—that tap, tap, tap, tap-tap—sort of the heartbeat of the show, as Lin-Manuel does, it does create some tension. Because it can push music and dance styles not rooted in that beat to the sidelines. And you do feel that a little bit, especially in terms of bachata, which we basically don’t see in the film—we see very little of it, or hear very little of it, which is odd given that that is a quintessential Dominican form and Usnavi is Dominican. Like, he would be doing bachata, we should be hearing it somewhere. So that I thought was interesting.

And then I also thought…you can’t really avoid right now the conversations that are happening about colorism in the film, of the idea that it centers light-skinned Latinos and shows very few dark-skinned Afro-Latinos. I thought it was interesting that when asked about that directly, John Chu, the director, said, “Look at the dancers in the background. That’s where you’ll see the broadest range of skin tones. That’s where you see the most diversity.” And I’m having really complicated feelings about that. In some ways, there is something to be proud of there, that the dance parts of the film got things the most right in terms of representative diversity. But then it’s also disheartening that didn’t carry up to the lead roles.

Courtney Escoyne:
And also, I do think say something about this musical debuted on Broadway, what was it, 2008?

Margaret Fuhrer:
2008 or 2009?

Courtney Escoyne:
Yes, 2008 or nine. And it does say something about how much conversations have changed and shifted just in the last 10, 15 years around colorism and representation in Hollywood, on Broadway. Because 10 or 15 years ago, it would probably—if this film had come out, it would probably just have been like, “Oh my gosh, look at all this Latino representation.” And now, today, we’re able to have a more nuanced conversation about like, “Okay, this does a lot. It can do more.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
I think overall—I’m echoing things that Lydia has said in the past, here—we just need more works of mainstream film and dance and art that show more types of diversity, so that this one movie doesn’t have to carry so much.

Courtney Escoyne:
Lin-Manuel should not be the only person having to carry this. John Chu should not be the only person having to carry this. More diversity, everywhere.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Theme of the show: more diversity everywhere.

All right. We’re going to take a break. When we come back, we’ll have our interview with the wonderful Ayodele Casel and Torya Beard. So stay tuned.

[pause]

INTERVIEW WITH TORYA BEARD AND AYODELE CASEL

Margaret Fuhrer:
It is my great pleasure now to be joined by both Ayodele Casel and Torya Beard. Welcome—thank you both so much for joining on the podcast!

Ayodele Casel:
Thank you for having us, thank you so much. Happy to be here.

Torya Beard:
Yes, same. Very happy to be here. Thank you.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And happy slightly belated birthday to both of you, right?

Ayodele Casel:
Yes, indeed! Yes, we have a little like happy birthday sign that’s like outside in our patio. It’s now fallen, but we’re leaving it up there. [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s still festive! So, listeners, I know most of you know Ayodele and Torya already because they are so renowned in the dance world, and beyond it too. Ayodele is one of the greatest tap dancers and choreographers of our time. Torya is a brilliant director, creative consultant, choreographer and producer. And together they create and curate art that explores identity and culture and language.

I actually don’t want to say too much more, because I want to start with the two of you telling your own stories. But before we begin, I just want to make sure listeners can match your names to your voices. So would you mind, each of you, saying a quick hello that includes your name?

Ayodele Casel:
I’ll start, sure. Hi, I’m Ayodele. That’s such a beautiful introduction. So thank you.

Torya Beard:
Yes, hello, everyone. This is Torya. So happy to be here.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Great. Okay, so now that we’ve got that on the record: would you tell us a little bit about your respective dance stories, and then about your story together?

Ayodele Casel:
Surely, I’ll start. So my dance story actually probably begins a little bit later than most people,.I started tap dancing when I was 19 years old, in college. My dance experience prior to that was like, just dancing to Janet Jackson in my room and in like, my high school shows. But tap was like my first discipline.

And when I was a… I tell this story often, but my sophomore year, I was offered, I was an acting major, and they offered me tai chi and tap as a movement course for actors. And I had already had gotten the bug of tap dancing when I was in high school, because I saw Ginger Rogers and I thought she was so cool, and I wanted to be her and all that. So when I got this opportunity to take a tap class, I was beyond thrilled.

And that’s where it begins. 19 years old, and I just became super obsessed with it. About a year into that sort of remedial flap-ball-change, flap-toe-heel classes—which I loved, by the way, and I don’t look down on it at all, because I really was like, living my best life doing those very basic sort of things—but when I really learned what was possible with tap dancing, which was about a year after that, I just became super obsessed, and it just took over my life in the best, best way.

Those are my origin stories. What about you Torya?

Torya Beard:
Yes, so I started dancing in Detroit, Michigan, which is where I was born and raised. And I went on to study dance at the University of Michigan. So my roots are firmly planted in modern dance. The first professional company I was ever in was called Cleo Parker Robinson Dance in Denver, Colorado. And there—I’m just going to run down this list of names because I hardly ever get a chance to do this—I met and worked with Kevin Iega Jeff, Dwight Rhoden, Gary Abbott, Donald Byrd, Donald McKayle, and Keith Lee. And that was just like, in my first year in the company.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh my gosh!

Ayodele Casel:
Wow.

Torya Beard:
That sort of like, set the tone for the rest of my career. It was heavily rooted in the African American stories, storytelling, self expression. So that’s where I started, and then I became really interested in commercial dance and musical theater. I was obsessed with Debbie Allen, she was one of my greatest inspirations.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Join the club. Oh my goodness.

Torya Beard:
Yeah, right, who doesn’t? And so then I ended up… I spent a good deal of time just trying to do commercial dance, and had some success there. And then I spent a while in Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway, as a swing and a dance captain.

Ayodele Casel:
Okay, first of all, when you say you were obsessed with Debbie Allen—tell the story about high school. How did you show up to your high school?

Torya Beard:
I used to dress… I wanted to go to the Fame school so badly that I pretended like I did. So I would go to school dressed like Debbie Allen in my leg warmers, in my leotard and tights. And I would get into the cafeteria like hoping they would play “Hot Lunch,” but they never did. I was fully committed to that narrative. Yeah. I loved it. [laugher]

Ayodele Casel:
I do want to add something. The one thing that I was really clear about when I realized that I wanted to do this forever, was when I saw [Bring in ‘da] Noise, [Bring in ‘da] Funk at the Public Theater. And it was like the first time that I had seen, number one, really like young Black people in a theater space, sort of take up space with such authenticity. And at the time—I always say, everybody talks about diversity and inclusion now, it’s like a hot topic and an intentional way that organizations are trying to order their business. But back then, that’s not really what was happening. And so I was one of two Black people in my entire, like NYU Strasberg class. So I was pursuing this dream that I didn’t think was possible. So when I saw them, I thought, oh, man, those young men, those guys, they’re the best. And so, I was happy to eventually get a chance to be a part of Not Your Ordinary Tappers with Savion [Glover] and Jason Samuels [Smith], and so on and so forth…but it’s been a nice journey, for sure.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s been an incredible journey for both of you. So where in that journey, then, did you meet each other and start working together?

Ayodele Casel:
So I met Torya, actually, 1997. And I was teaching tap dancing at Mind-Builders Creative Art Center, which is this cultural arts facility in the Bronx. That was like an after school program for young people. And I actually had attended that when I was 15—I saw auditions in the paper that said, “dancers, actors,” and I had a dream of being a performer, and so I auditioned for them. And I was in their like youth company when I was 15, 16, 17 years old. So when I was in my early 20s, I went back to teach there. And Torya, I think you had just moved to the city, right, from Chicago?

Torya Beard:
Yeah, from Chicago. So like—as I think about it now, looking way, way back, these first couple of years that I danced with Cleo, it kind of set me up for the rest of my journey as a dancer. And I ended up—oh, so I ended up dancing with Kevin Jeff. And part of the Jubilation! legacy, and someone who was also mentored me very early on, was Krystal Hall Glass, who was at the time running the dance department at Mind-Builders. So when I moved to New York, I had no money and no job. And she’s like, “I have a job for you.” That was my first job teaching, at Mind-Builders. And that’s how we met.

Ayodele Casel:
That’s how we met. Yep. And then, I was touring a lot. And I’m sure Torya, you had your own things going on. And we actually we connected via Facebook, like many, many years later, I want to say like—2004, 5, 6, I don’t remember. But I saw her—she kept posting about Savion [Glover] show. And I was like, is she a tap dancer now? I just kept thinking, I remember she was not doing modern dance, and so I remember asking her, “So, you tap dancing?” And she was like, “No, no, no, I’m doing PR for his show at the Joyce.” And so—one of Torya’s many, many hats that she wears, right? And that’s how we sort of reconnected.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And so now you are both life partners and art partners. And it seems like—I mean, there’s definitely an alchemy to that relationship, right? Like, there has to be a little bit of magic there. Can you talk about what makes you such good collaborators? What are the different perspectives and qualities that you each bring to the work that you do together?

Ayodele Casel:
I love that question. I actually love that you said alchemy, because we say, I always say that Torya is like a creative alchemist. But I think that—I mean, I knew that Torya wasn’t a tap dancer. But I did know that she is somebody—a), she’s a Gemini. She’s very creative. And she was very interested always in using all aspects of her creativity and creative expression. And I don’t know, I felt like—and I don’t know Torya if maybe you feel differently—but I think I was at a point in my artistic expression, especially when I did “While I Have the Floor” that I wrote in 2017 for Spoleto Arts Festival, where I think I needed community and support around me, my art, my art making.

I was starting to write more, which is a whole other skill set than dancing. I was also like, writing something that was really personal. And I felt very vulnerable at the time. And I think that in some ways, I think our initial entry was maybe like, I needed like creative support and emotional support around the work that I was creating. And then for the Spoleto Arts Festival presentation you brought in the whole team, the lighting designer, some of the people who did the sound, you just had access to all of these folks. And you were sort of like the executive producer of that particular thing. In addition to being my sounding board to when I was feeling crazy and all that stuff. So I’m sure you were tasked with a lot in that work with me.

But I think also what I appreciated about her perspective, having been in Lion King, having been a dancer and having worked and covered the space, is that tap dancers aren’t really allowed, hadn’t been allowed to really cover space in that way. Because if you notice, we’re relegated very often to four by four pieces of wood.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Tap boards, yeah.

Ayodele Casel:
Yeah, to tap boards. So you can be on a festival on a bill that has a 40 by 40 stage, but you can only dance on a four by four. And so I think people underestimate how limiting that can be to artists, for percussive artists, right? Because we are—it’s called tap dancing. There’s a musical element to it with your footwork, but there’s also movement that can be beautifully expressed. But if you’re not nurtured in that way, if you’re not given the space and the support, then you don’t get a chance to really fully develop that thing. And I knew that Torya knew how to do that. And so I wanted her, as I started to create more work, I wanted her to be my eye and to really just help develop that skill in me.

And what about you, Torya, what do you what do you think?

Torya Beard:
I would say, first of all, we really like each other. And I think that’s very important. And it may sound clichéd—

Ayodele Casel:
I love you! [laughter]

Torya Beard:
I love you, too. But, it may sound clichéd, but we also assume best intentions. Because I know sometimes it’s very close to your heart, and it can cause an injury, when someone speaks to you about your work in a certain way, or pushes you to do something that maybe you think is outside your comfort zone or won’t work. So I think that’s helpful, like knowing that if ever I make a suggestion, it really is just—the goal is to support the work, it’s not to judge or to change anything, or even to impose my own vision on it many times. So I think that’s how, why we work well together.

And then I would say…that was a good segue, Ayodele, because I’ve always been music obsessed, I’ve just always really, really been into music. My aunt is a singer, my father is a musician. And so when we were dating, and I started accompanying Ayodele to tap festivals—I just always loved tap dancing, but I hadn’t really been exposed to it as musical expression in the way that I was when I was going to these festivals with her. And I was like, so inspired by it. And then also thinking, there’s so many stories here. There’s so much expression here. I want to participate in this. And so we just started having conversations about it, and we built things from there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, you each enhance each other’s storytelling abilities. I love that. And the compassionate approach, it’s all rooted in compassion.

It’s almost hard to figure out where to start when we’re talking about the projects you’ve been working on, because you’re doing everything! There’s so much on your plate right now. But I guess the place I decided to start was talking about your involvement with Little Island. Because Ayodele is now artist in residence there. And then it was recently announced that the two of you are co curating the Little Island Dance Festival this September, which is so exciting. How did this Little Island partnership come about? What were the beginnings of it?

Ayodele Casel:
Yeah, so last January or February, Julia Kraus, who’s the producer there, reached out to me and said, “We’re building this island here in New York.” I was like, “What? An island in the Hudson?” And she said, “We intend on having a lot of artistic programming. And we would love to talk to you about doing something here.” So she invited me to basically visit the space, which was literally like had cranes—I mean, the tulip bulbs were in place, but it was just cranes everywhere. There was no greenery. Of course, I brought Torya along, we went to the space, they gave us hard hats and the vests with the reflectors, and we had to wear construction boots. There’s a story there that maybe even could accompany, a visual that can accompany this particular podcast…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Torya is saying no! [laughter]

Ayodele Casel:
Because Torya wore like fashion boots and not like, work boots. So they had to give us some construction boots that were like seven sizes too big. And it was really funny.

But anyway, long story short, we saw this thing. We saw this space and I was like, Oh my god, this is going to be incredible. It was so exciting to think that not only was there something being built for New Yorkers, but that it was really created with the intention of hosting artists and hosting art in various configurations within the park. And that was beautiful. I thought that that was like one of the best things about it.

And then a couple months later, she called me back and she was like, “Okay, we want to talk to you about something else.” She said, “Would you consider being artist in residence, so that the work that you do here, it’s a little bit more involved than just showing up to do a performance?” And I didn’t hesitate at all, I had actually—it was to me, it was like a dream offer, because one of the things that I had been really looking forward to in the development of my career is to be at the table where decisions are being made, and not just be somebody who’s in front performing. So when she made that really generous invitation, I jumped at the chance. And one of the things that we were tasked with was curating their Little Island Dance Festival, and I brought Torya, who had been there, just sort of like as a guest with me when we went to see the space, but then I was like, I do everything with Torya, because I just believe so much in just her point of view and her vision. And they were like, absolutely, and so they brought her on as co-curator of this festival. But it is so exciting.

Torya Beard:
What’s really exciting to me is that the attention and the care that has been put into creating an environment that truly does honor the artists. They’re so committed to making sure that it is a wonderful experience. And that even applies to us, as far as like the kind of freedom and support we’ve been experiencing. It’s really exciting.

Ayodele Casel:
Yeah, and I also want to say, they built it with the intention of being for all New Yorkers, and wanting to reach every aspect of the communities here in the city. But as an artist, as a percussive artist, one of the things that I love about the way that they have operated from day one is that they listen. And so for example, like even the flooring, as they’re creating this thing from scratch, I was like, okay, if I’m involved, that means we need wood floors. We need…

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’re going to do it right.

Ayodele Casel:
And we’re going to do it right by percussive artists. And they were like, “Okay, what kind of floor.” And I was like, “Okay, this is the floor that I use, or this is the floor that I’ve used, it’s very convenient.” And they went ahead and invested in a proper sprung wood floor for percussive artists. And like that, that kind of like consideration is—we’re almost never afforded it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I was going to say, that is unheard of, that is amazing.

Ayodele Casel:
Yeah. And I’m proud of them. I’m proud to be a part of it. And I’m grateful that they listen. It’s unheard of. Thank you, Julia!

Torya Beard:
Yeah, I will say that I’m sort of obsessed with the idea of just with creativity as a concept, right? Can it be increased? Like what types of things affect or inform our creativity? And I feel like when you’re sharing your brain, your heart and your spirit with so many other considerations, I wonder if your creativity suffers. So when you’re invited to do something, if your first concern is, what is the surface I’m going to have to dance on? Am I going to have to navigate this? Do I have to bring my own floor? Like, you’re thinking well, how many days is it going to have, we have a very limited space… I wonder if all of those things can sort of like inhibit the creativity of the artist. How can freedom help us, help our creative impulses really, really soar, and really fly, and help us become more fully expressed. So I think this is like—it may seem like a small thing, but I think it’s transformative.

Margaret Fuhrer:
No, it’s huge. And this is why I love good arts administrators, because that is exactly what they do, is that they allow artists the mental space to do the creative thinking that they need to do. They get all the other logistical stuff off their plate, out of the way.

Ayodele Casel:
I also want, if I can give a shout out to like, even Aaron Mattocks over at the Joyce Theater. Because Aaron is somebody who I feel like—I felt so supported by him. Just because I feel like, it’s like he infuses you with the confidence to do anything you want to do. Like even when he invited us to do Chasing Magic, he was like, “We have this date, or this date timeframe. What do you want to do? Whatever you want to do, just let us know what you want to do.” And that’s it. Like I mean, and that—I don’t know. There’s something to your point Torya about the freedom, like what it does, you’re like, Okay, it can be anything, and he—there’s trust there. I think that’s why we were able to create what we did there, because of partly because of the tone that’s set.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Trust, that’s really it. It’s the trust. So for the Little Island Dance Festival, you have this space, you have that trust in that relationship. And you’re bringing in all of these amazing percussive dance forms to the park. Can you talk a little about how the two of you developed the festival together? Like, what was your vision as you were putting together this group of performers?

Ayodele Casel:
We—Julia, Torya, Alverneq over at Little Island—we had many, many Zoom calls about what this festival week was going to look like. And we sort of, we’d brainstorm and I would think about it. And finally, I got to the point where I was like, okay, I think this is what the missing piece at one point was: if I’m there, then certain things are really important to me as a human and as an artist, right? And so I want the week to reflect that.

So for me, if you know anything about me, if anybody has read any one thing about anything that was very important to me, is culture. Also very important is obviously percussive dance. The idea of authenticity, language and communication, true expression, also, integrity. And so we wanted the week to have… we wanted to include artists that really, whose work naturally speaks to all of that, that they speak to social justice, that they speak to inclusivity, that it speaks to the roots and origins of whatever their practice, their art form is.

Torya Beard:
Yeah, there’s some other surprises. I think I’m also interested in, how should I say it…challenging the idea of standards or norms or whatever, like traditional guidelines that seem to be as far as who is afforded the luxury of being center stage. So there are some other things that we have in there that I think are going to be pretty surprising and very exciting. So, yeah, stay tuned.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Stay tuned! I want to talk about the idea of dance for the community. Because so often dance performances, they are this insular, exclusionary thing—it’s happening in a theater, or some other closed-off, rarefied space. And I think one of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it’s pushed a lot of dance either outside, where it kind of automatically becomes a community performance, or online, where it’s accessible to a much wider audience. And the two of you have created, and you’re continuing to create, such beautiful projects in both of those spaces. I mean, Chasing Magic, the digital show you did for the Joyce that you’ve been referring to, was so joyful. And then you’ve been involved also in the NY PopsUp performances outdoors, among your many other endeavors. So how can the dance world kind of grow and reinforce that idea of dance as community art? And do you think that shift will stick as the pandemic subsides?

Ayodele Casel:
Oh, I mean, I would love for it to stick. People have often asked me, “Oh, what’s your favorite venue to play in?” I like to be with the people who want to be with me. Right? And that has happened from everywhere from the six train station, in Hunts Point in the Bronx, literally right outside the platform, to, when I was younger, in the platform—I was just dancing and people would gather. And then also The White House and Carnegie Hall. I’ve done that all. And I think it’s really important and really energizing and really humbling and a beautiful experience to just spend time with people in all environments. And I think that we have underestimated—not only artists, but even institutions have underestimated the value and the beauty of that, of connection with human beings, period, no matter what container we happen to be in. And I think that, when we did City Center On the Move—I think it was 2019, I don’t remember, 2018—we got a chance to kind of go through the community centers in all the five boroughs, and to spend time with like—literally the audience would be like two year olds and 92 year olds. And there were people who not always—maybe don’t have the… I don’t want to say only that finances are a deterrent, but sometimes it’s just like you’re in your community and it’s insular and you have your routine and if you don’t think about buying a ticket at New York City Center or at the Joyce… but to be able to bring the same level of artistry, quality and intent to those communities, to me, meant everything. I had my neighbors who I’d been neighbors with for like 25 years, who never seen me dancing in person, went to the Bronx center to check it out. And I think also, like with Chasing Magic, what we saw was like, Torya’s dad lives in Florida, and he was able to—my mom lives in Puerto Rico, and they were able to tune in, whereas it would have been a lot harder for them to come to New York City, I mean, practically impossible.

I think I find power in it originating from me, the artist, to maybe request that and demand that and to create those spaces, you know what I mean? To say, no, it’s important, I love being in a theater, and it’s beautiful, and the lights and all that, but also, there’s value in literally setting up your board and being in the park and engaging in that way as well.

Torya, what do you think about that?

Torya Beard:
Well, I think dance was born in community. It is something that happens with people and their families, every type of celebration, and it marks most all occasions, right? And so the fact that it has been taken away from the community in some respects, and put in these rarefied space is curious, right? Why has that happened? We are the same people, no matter where we perform. The artistry that we carry with us is the same, whether we’re dancing in the middle of the street, for NY PopsUp or in whatever theater, on whatever stage, right? And so, I don’t know, I mean, it may seem like a simple question, but I think there’s so many layers to this.

And the shortest answer I can give is that, yes, I hope this continues on. I hope we start with the idea that dance for the community, or we move away from the idea that there’s a certain type of dance that is created for community consumption, and there’s another type of dance that is created for theaters, and to be programmed for a season ticket holder. Because there is something troubling in that I think, it creates a disconnect within our society. I hope we continue with this type of generosity and this type of sharing. And everybody’s saying, “What’s going to happen when we go back?” and—that is very triggering to me. I love to think of it as when we go forward. And I hope we move forward with this same type of energy that we are emerging with.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, with the natural generosity of dance. Dance is a generous art. And actually, that’s kind of the next question: Generosity is a through line in a lot of the work that you do—this idea of sharing knowledge, sharing history, sharing joy. I mean, it feels like almost an obvious question, but why is it important for dance to do that, and why is dance so good at doing that?

Ayodele Casel:
Maybe because it is rooted in our inherent humanity, like moving and heartbeat and wanting to connect and wanting to express and wanting to share, it’s just a natural. I don’t know, that’s how we relate, it’s probably the easiest way to sort of to express and connect and be joyful.

Torya Beard:
Well, I think discipline—I don’t want to call it achievement, but yeah, if you set a goal for yourself, and keep achieving, that goal through discipline is not separate from joy and authentic expression and community. Speaking of community, I do feel like when you have, when your work is rooted, in your expression is rooted in generosity, and community, that is what reaches the people. They may not know, oh, the heel was forward and the toe was beautifully pointed, whatever. But they will know the energy that the group onstage has, and they will take that, carry that away with them. So that’s why I think generosity and really seeing each other and really participating together in performance is really important. Because people may not be able to articulate why they love something. But I believe that sometimes is a large part of it.

Ayodele Casel:
The word that comes up frequently from what I have seen, in my life time of dancing, is the word joy. My name means “joy has arrived,” so on one hand, it’s like unsurprising. But I think that it makes sense, because I love tap dancing. Like I love it as a form, I love what it represents, but I actually love doing it. And I loved it from the moment that I saw it, right? And I still get so excited to… sometimes I don’t even lace up my shoes when I’m about to practice, because I just want to hurry up and get to moving my feet.

And because I love it so much, I really want everybody to love it just as much. And so I think my intention when I’m dancing most often is that I just want to share it, and I want people to feel how I feel, even though I know that most people who watch me can’t physically do what I’m doing. But I just want them to feel the feeling, to feel that the feeling that I have of the joy and the appreciation and the love for it. And for the ability to, like—that I have found this in my life, this way of expressing myself, is like… I would not have ever thought that I would live a life as a tap dancer. And then here I have been just feeling very fulfilled by that very fact.

And I think that we all have something that does that for us. And so like Torya said, what’s important is the identification of the feeling, and not necessarily of the technical thing.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I was cracking up as you were talking about starting to dance before tying your shoes, because my five year old daughter has that same problem. And I feel like most people lose that level of enthusiasm by age 10, but you never lost it.

Ayodele Casel:
I never lost it, I get so excited. I mean, it’s like, I don’t know, maybe it’s a little strange, but I just really love it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s not strange, it’s great! We need, more of that. Actually, yeah, when you’re talking about sharing that joy and sharing that love, a big part of that is sharing it with the next generation too. I wanted to talk a little about the work that you both do with A BroaderWay Foundation, which works to amplify the power of young women and femmes through the arts. Can you talk about the work you do there, and what it means to you?

Torya Beard:
I will say I’ve been with A BroaderWay since the first year, since the beginning of the effort. And I was just thinking about this today, I’m just incredibly proud of what we’ve done and how the organization has grown over the last 11 years.

And what we do is really whatever is required—whatever our future leaders, as we call them, or leaders in training, need, that is what we work to do. There is a structure, there is a curriculum, and everything is designed to help offer the opportunity for them to gain leadership skills. And that loosely means being the leader of your own journey, your own life, pursuing your dreams. And with a certain sensitivity to the fact that you are a member of a community, that you have something to offer, that there are people who are at your back pushing you forward.

We do all of this through offering an opportunity for our participants to engage in artistic and develop artistic practices. So we do that through dance, music, spoken word, and theater in the early years. And then in the latter—it’s a four year program minimum, six to eight years maximum after the first four years. And Ayodele can talk about that, because she—I’m the executive director of the program, and Ayodele is the director of the graduate program. So I’ll just keep it to the future leader program, which is the first four years. In the third and fourth years, the young people have an opportunity to participate in the authorship program. And the real thought behind that is the idea of writing your own story, authoring your own narrative. After that they can apply to be in the graduate program. So take it away, Ayodele.

Ayodele Casel:
Yeah, and I’m the director of grad programs. So after their four years, they get to basically interview to be a leader in training, an LIT, and there are about 24 participants per level, but we only accept around six for this. It’s basically like, it’s the next level training, this is the prepare you for the real world, get your ish together two year program, essentially. And what I love about it is that I get to really… because there’s just six of them at any given time, like I get a chance to really just spend time and get to know what is it… because by this point, at 14, 15 years old, 16, they start to think about what they want to do for the rest of their lives, and what their interests are, and how can I basically help support that for them.

One of the things that we work on is their public speaking and just really sort of standing confidently in your voice and speaking up and speaking out and speaking to power. And I developed this exercise with them over the summer. I call it like personal mission statements. Basically, I have them answer, “I am… I believe… I fight for…” I feel so honored to get the opportunity to spend that time with them. I think it takes a lot of courage, grace, and also trust and vulnerability for them to allow us to guide them in that way. And I don’t take that for granted at all. So I feel like they hold us accountable as well. So I feel like we all grow together each and every time. So that’s part of the work that we do there with those young women.

Torya Beard:
Yeah, it feels really good. I just think about the people who stopped, took a pause to invest in me, to ask me what I thought about things, to encourage me, to really see me, and how that changed the way I considered possibilities for myself. And I think it’s incredibly important.

And I also, I want to shout out Idina Menzel, who is our founder, and this was all her idea. And I do feel like there’s something to that, like they say, the more you know and the more you have, the greater your responsibility to reinvest that. And I think that is really important.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’ll link to abroaderway.org in the show notes, just so the listeners can find out more about that for themselves. Because I know we could talk about this for another whole episode, too. And I’m sorry that we can’t!

Torya Beard:
No, it’s okay!

Margaret Fuhrer:
I’m going to end with a question that is the question, basically. We’ve touched on this a little bit already, but a lot of dance artists, especially over the past year, have been reconsidering or deepening the way that they think about the relationship between art and social justice. And that relationship is key to so much of the work that you both do. How do you believe that art, and especially dance, can speak to issues of race and identity and politics?

Ayodele Casel:
Well, I speak very frequently about how I think tap dancing, because of its history, and its origins, really intersects squarely right in the middle of all of those things. And maybe some people think it’s ironic, because you wouldn’t think that tap dancing—this thing that we know as like being in movies in the ’30s and ’40s that entertains, would actually, like do that—but it does. We can’t speak about this particular art form and not discuss race and not discuss American history, and not discuss a really painful and horrible time in American history. And then also, I particularly feel like, it’s really important to really have a zoomed out view and a very internalized view of it, so that you can educate folks. And then also for the purpose of making sure that we don’t repeat those patterns that were very damaging, not only to us as humans, but even maybe even to the art form itself.

And so I recognize it, when I read the history, and when I see the evolution of it. But I also know it from my own perspective, as a Black and Puerto Rican woman in what was very much a male-dominated form—I feel a responsibility to honor it by being truthful about what the art form holds. And so I feel very compelled always to speak about its origins, to speak about erasure, to speak about the difference—even when we talk about the origins and people say, Irish folks and Black folks and the Five Points, to talk about, wait, there’s a difference between indentured servitude and slavery. We have to be able to really talk about those nuances in order to understand some of the issues that we’re dealing with today.

And I believe that if you come at it with good intentions, or with the intentions of seeking understanding and seeking a path forward, then you can’t lose—you can bring up the very tough stuff, and possibly shift things, I don’t know, so that we’re all better for it at the end of it.

Torya Beard:
From my perspective, I think we’re all seeking liberation, right? And so we can only take ourselves but so far. But I also feel like people who are in positions of power have to take a hard look at what they can do to make changes, to open spaces, to honor this thing that I feel like we’ve always been doing, which is offering our work authentically, which is moving conversations forward.

And I don’t think every dance piece has to be about… you can just tell the story, right? Because I think that also moves the conversation in the direction of a more just society. If you can lay out a story, and somebody can see themselves in that story, then that brings us closer together as humans, right?

But what I think what I’ve been circling lately is, how can the structures that are in place participate in this movement for social justice? And I know that is a big thing, but it starts with what we’ve been talking about. It’s like, who are you programming? What are you doing to support their work, if you’re programming them? How can we stop referring to certain dance forms as, oh, that’s very specific, or telling somebody that their audience won’t respond to their work because it’s not in the center of what you’ve been doing for so many years?

I think I feel very optimistic, because we have had to take a complete pause. And hopefully we’ve all been thinking a lot, having these conversations and getting in touch with the world we want to live in. And I’m hoping that we can meet in the middle—the people who are creating and generating and performing the work can meet with the people who hold the purse strings, who hold the keys of theater doors, rehearsal spaces, all of that. That’s what I think.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s kind of a beautiful place to end. Although actually, before we go, can you talk just a little bit about some of the projects that you have on the horizon? You have so many things coming up—Ayodele, you’re about to be on a stamp! And I just heard that Chasing Magic is going to be performed live this fall. There’s so much happening. Are there a few things you want to call out?

Ayodele Casel:
Yeah, I mean, that one is, like I’m still…my mind is a little boggled. Yeah, I’m going to be on a stamp representing this art form that I love that…I could cry thinking about it. But yeah, it’s cool.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, talk about community art. That is like…

Ayodele Casel:
Yeah, I love that. I’m very proud of it. I’m proud that I’m alive to see it. Because, you generally you have to be dead to be on a stamp! So I’m proud that I get to see it.

I’m proud that I’m Chasing Magic is going to be live. The fact that I get to go back to Cambridge, to ART, to Harvard, a place that I love, is like really exciting. Little Island is on the horizon. I have some concerts up with Broadway Inspirational Voices happening for Juneteenth at Lincoln Center, which Torya is curating. And she hired me for, thank you Torya. And there’s like something actually really huge that I hope maybe we can do in addendum to this particular podcast down the line, later on this year, that I’m really excited about.

But things are looking up. They’re looking up for the art form. They’re looking up, I think for a lot of people. And I’m just thrilled to be on the journey.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, thank you both. I’m so excited to hear more about that. Yes, we’ve definitely got to have you on for part two, once you can say more about that future project. Thank you for all of the beautiful work that you’re doing in the dance world and in the arts world more broadly. And Happy Pride! I didn’t say happy Pride yet.

Torya Beard:
Yeah, happy Pride!

Ayodele Casel:
Thank you! We had a Pride shake from Shake Shack the other day—it was very good.

Torya Beard:
Yeah, I was afraid, but it was great, it was kind of delicious. Out of one side of my mouth, I’m like, oh, this is Pride capitalism. But the other side, I’m like…this shake is really good. [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know. That’s the thing. It’s like, commercial pride is one thing, but then sometimes it’s really kind of great—you have to find the happy spot in the middle.

Thank you again. And I’m excited to see you both at Little Island in a few months, if not before.

Ayodele Casel:
Yes. Thank you so much. What a delight this was, I loved it. Thank you.

Torya Beard:
Yes. Thank you so much.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again to Ayodele and Torya. We will absolutely have them on The Dance Exit Extra down the road for a second round once they can share more details about that future project, which sounds so great. And we’ve got links to both of their websites and to the Little Island site in the show notes, of course, but I actually just wanted to give another shout out to the Lincoln Center Juneteenth event they’re part of, which Courtney mentioned in the intro. It’s called “Coming Together: A Juneteenth Celebration,” and it will feature not just great dance, but also music and poetry. So we’ve put a link with more information about that in the show notes as well.

All right. Thanks everyone for joining us. We will be back next week from more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating, and keep dancing.,

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.

Amy Brandt:
Bye everybody.