'Release. Joy. Love.' A dance festival at Little Island.

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'Release. Joy. Love.' A dance festival at Little Island.
Ayodele Casel, left, and Torya Beard, who have created an event united by two themes: art and age, in New York on Sept. 13, 2021. Casel and Beard have organized the Little Island Dance Festival that celebrates percussive dance and artists of all ages. Jingyu Lin/The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- The good thing about a Zoom interview is that it can take place anywhere. “I’m stuck in New York parking horror,” tap dancer and choreographer Ayodele Casel said. “But I’m parked.”

Starting soon, Casel will be parked in a far more picturesque spot than a city street. She and her collaborator Torya Beard, a director and dancer, have curated the Little Island Dance Festival.

The setting, a floating park dangling on an edge of the Hudson River, is a thing of beauty. (And the experience of watching a dance, especially as the sun sets, at Little Island is starting to feel like the latest New York attraction.) For the festival, which starts Wednesday and runs through the weekend, Casel and Beard — the pair are married — have created an event united by two themes: art and age. From tap to Kathak, they will explore percussive dance forms, with artists who represent many generations.

At this point in her life and career, Casel, who is 46 and an artist-in-residence at Little Island, said she’d been wondering: “How can I have a seat at the table so I can really help support other artists that are coming forward?”

Among the younger generation at the festival are Tomoe Carr — she specializes in hip-hop, house, waacking, locking, popping and breaking — and Eddie Hernandez. Casel and Beard met Hernandez, a Latin dancer, during a presentation of Encores! Off-Center at New York City Center. “He was like 10 years old and just adorable and so talented,” Casel said. “He’s just joy. He’s 14 years old.”

In “Don’t Call It a Comeback,” Hank Smith, a 75-year-old tap dancer, and Rokafella, a hip-hop veteran, will join Beard and others onstage — and, for some, reclaim their identities as performers. Another program features premieres by Josh Prince, Ray Mercer, Darrell Moultrie and Tiffany Rea-Fisher, inspired by Casel’s prompts of “I am,” “I believe,” “I fight for” and “I strive for.” And the always captivating Casel, joined by five tap dancers and a band, will lead her own program.

“With young people, with older people, with percussive dance, I like the idea of saying this is all beautiful — it’s all worthy of being in the center,” Beard said. And to be at the center, the right conditions are needed.

For percussive dance, wood floors are ideal but difficult to have access to, both in studios and on stages. At Little Island, Casel was asked what kind of floor was needed, not just for her festival, but for the venue. They took her advice.

“They purchased a sprung-wood floor that is the size of the big amphitheater,” she said. “I have been in a struggle for years of trying to get venues to understand the importance of the right surface for the work that we do. When I consider how many times I’ve had to pay out of my own artist fee for a floor rental? It is huge, huge progress.”

Without access to a proper main stage, percussive dance can be regulated to being “a special side thing,” Beard said. “It’s a subtle othering that happens. Ayodele and I talked a lot about how can we try to put all of these people in the center of what this festival is.”

Together, Casel and Beard (who prefers not to reveal her age) are a force, with the spirit and fortitude to bring dance to the bigger world and to try to make the dance world a better place. Recently, they spoke — Casel from her car, and Beard from a studio — about their vision. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: Why is it important to you to highlight different generations?

CASEL: I saw something this morning that said, “In my mind, I’m 26, but my knees are 57 and my hips are turning 79 this week.” I also find that the older I get, the younger older people are. [Laughs]

Q: It’s completely true.

CASEL: As a tap dancer, we have always known that getting older in the art form is where it’s at. That the longer you continue to investigate it, the richer your expression is going to be. I always say that when I’m 65, I think I’m going to be great. It seems to me that in ballet or modern or whatever, age is looked down upon and we tend to go toward young people. I want to spread the tap world message that older is great. Older is where it’s at.

Q: And how do you feel about the younger generation?

BEARD: They’re unencumbered by a lot of the experiences that have created the traumas that we carry. When I started looking at it like that, it blew my mind and that translates to art as well. I don’t believe there’s only one way. So it was really important to me to bring those young voices in.

Q: How did you come up with the program, “Don’t Call It a Comeback,” which features you along with Danni Gee, Aaron Mattocks, Rokafella and Hank Smith?

BEARD: As an older person who spent most of my life dancing but is not dancing anymore, for a while I was like, well, I’m just going to put my dancing to the side and now I’m going to do my other work. But Brinda Guha [the Kathak dance artist who performs Sept. 17] invited me to participate in a series she was doing during the pandemic: She invited people to write whatever they wanted and to read it and then have dancers interpret or respond to it.

Q: What did you learn?

BEARD: That everything I do today is grounded in things I learned as a dancer. And so I felt compelled to claim that for myself even though I don’t dance all the time anymore. It’s quite challenging for me to dance; I have rheumatoid arthritis.

I wanted to invite other people who maybe people don’t see us as dancers anymore. People always say, once a dancer always a dancer, but what does that actually mean? And how do we feel?

CASEL: It’s very vulnerable to perform, period, whether you’re young or old. And then I was thinking, when you reach a certain status in whatever field, I can imagine it could get even scarier. But as far as life is concerned, how often do we rob ourselves of really just living and experiencing something that might potentially bring us so much joy?

This might not solve the idea of ageism in dance, but I think the more we have conversations about it and the more you see it, it has a potential to transform the way audiences view dancers of a certain age, and also the way the dancers view themselves within their art and when they can stop or start doing their thing.

Q: So what do you want the week to feel like?

CASEL: Like a release, joy, love, collaboration between the audience and the artists. And I say collaboration because we are performing after a good year and a half of not doing so. I remember the first time I performed live with NY PopsUp this year in February, and it felt like we were all learning how to get back into this. The audience was like, do we clap? Is it appropriate? It takes two. I mean it always has, but I think more than ever, we’re each inviting each other into our world and in our space.

BEARD: It’s like a family reunion. You feel welcome. You feel some sense of homecoming and who you are is affirmed. I think that is really important for the people coming, but also the people performing. It’s like we don’t have to be anything other than who we are, and that is worthy and that is valued. And let’s celebrate it.

Little Island Dance Festival: Wednesday through Sunday; littleisland.org/dance-festival

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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