Working Their Magic

SEP 16, 2021

Torya Beard and Ayodele Casel

Making its onstage premiere at the A.R.T. in September 2021, Chasing Magic began as a dance film produced by the Joyce Theater during the pandemic. In this interview, dancer-creator Ayodele Casel and director Torya Beard spoke with director, choreographer, and artistic director Jill Johnson about the process of bringing their show to the stage.

How did this project come into being?

Ayodele Casel: Chasing Magic was going to be a concert at Joe’s Pub in March 2020. And then the pandemic was like “No, it’s not.” Then Aaron Mattocks at the Joyce Theater asked us if we might be interested in doing a show as part of their virtual season in January 2021.

Torya Beard: Initially it was supposed to be a livestream, and then they asked if we might be interested in making something more like a film, with a bit more curation and time for editing. Then we started thinking about what type of filmed performance we could put together for the Joyce stage.

AC: It was the middle of the pandemic; there were no vaccines, and I hadn’t seen my friends in a year. The dancers who I work with were all over the country. So we were really grateful for the opportunity, and we were also asking ourselves what the show would be, given those circumstances.

TB: We said yes, and then we looked at each other and said, “Let’s just take a breath. It’s going to be what it’s going to be.” And for me, that was really exciting, because I always welcome the opportunity to have a creative problem-solving moment, and to create space for something to occur that I didn’t expect.

Watching the film, I felt such a warm rapport between all of you, dancers and musicians alike. It was almost like the viewer was another colleague, a friend. I wonder if what we’re speaking about is community. What does artistic community mean to you, and how do you create that community in this time we’re in of re-emerging or emerging into something new?

AC: In all the projects that Torya and I have done, we invest a lot in our relationships. We rehearse together, we eat together, we hang out, our collaborators are invited to our house. We take the time to really get to know one another.

I’m in awe of the generosity that dancers have when they are in a space together. I feel, personally, that the only way I can ask that energy and talent and flexibility of somebody is if they understand that we respect them to the core of who they are. So I think that’s what community is to me: real, honest respect of who we are as human beings first.

TB: I agree with that. I love getting to know all the dancers and becoming friends with them. It’s a spiritual experience to be in a space where you’re giving so much of yourself, and the energy is so elevated, yet it’s interlocked with other people. Sometimes, I feel like that dynamic is actually what people watching the piece respond to: they think they may be responding to the steps or the music, but they’re really responding to that relationship and community and closeness.

And now that dynamic is being reversed, in a way: you’ve made a film that you’re now adapting to the stage. How are you thinking about that process?

AC: The cool thing about Chasing Magic coming to A.R.T. is that this will be the first show in that space since the pandemic took over. I think the energy in the room is going to be amazing. I know I’m going to feel really grateful to be in a theater with folks, so I hope that they feel the same exact way.

TB: One thing I will say is that there’s no recreating the film experience in person. It’s live, so it’s going to have its own life as a stage production, and I’m very excited to see what that becomes. When the film premiered, people were saying, “Oh, I haven’t been to the theater, I haven’t been backstage.” But now we’re in a different place, because things are changing so quickly. People have been out, they’re finding new ways to dance and perform safely. For me, the gem of the film for the viewer was the intimacy of it—and I want to make sure that the audience in the theater feels that intimacy as well, even in a space that’s really big.

It’s something else—it’s the next chapter, or the sibling to the film. And at the same time, we’re still living through a global pandemic, alongside the pandemics of racism, race-based violence, injustice, and the connection of all those things to the climate crisis. To paraphrase Dr. Cornell West, artists have always offered prophetic insight into the culture. Has living through the past seventeen months reshaped your artistry in any way and/or reshaped what dance means to you?

TB: I have always been sensitive to these issues, and I was always drawn to work that addresses them or is informed by them. However, prior to the pandemic, I was able to conceive of things outside of that lens. Now, with every project I create, I’m asking, “What is the impact of this?” I feel like I can no longer imagine participating in the broader artistic tapestry purely for me. I’m asking myself how I can engage and really interact with people on a deeper level.

AC: I’ve been thinking a lot about how grateful I am that even though a lot of things fell apart in this pandemic, I’ve had my art with me. People lost work—especially artists. We didn’t know when it was coming back. We’ve lost people. There’s been a lot of loss, and yet I feel like throughout it all, if I wanted to express myself, I could. I had the capacity to go and feel the weight of it all or the joy of my art.

But I feel that I have always lived in that space. I’m a Black and Puerto Rican woman tap dancer. Tap is a marginalized art form, and I have lived my life as an artist by illuminating those issues, by speaking about sexism and racism and social justice. My piece While I Have the Floor came out of an eighteen-year need to release something about my own experience as a Black Puerto Rican tap dancer—and that expression opened a door.

Now if anyone knows who I am now, they know that I’m a tap dancer and a choreographer, but they also know that I’m willing to speak about these things. I’m very consistent, and it happens with joy, and it happens with intention and purpose. I feel like when the goal is to illuminate or shift something, people are willing to hear. That’s just me, but I’m a radical optimist. I always feel like I can move the needle.

I’m right with you, radical optimism. That’s a well that we can always draw on, and there’s definitely been an opportunity to hone that practice during these times.

TB: The pandemic has made us all so vulnerable and taken so many lives. I try to live my life in a way that I don’t have regrets. However, this experience has made me feel like I could have been living more boldly. I could have been, as Ayodele says, “practicing my bravery” on a grander scale. I feel like now there has been a shift for me to feel empowered to assert myself, to speak my truth as far as what I want, to take risks as an artist.

I have also been struck by the fact that when we were all in isolation, everybody turned to art. I already knew it was important, but that experience fed my belief that what we do is of great value to humanity. As keepers of our cultural legacies and our ancestral legacies, we are documenting history by doing what we’re doing. I think giving your life over to art is a life of service and should be recognized as such.

Before going any further, I want to make sure to honor what both of you have just shared. The notion that you’re going to be even more brave and courageous—it’s hard to even fathom! I consider you both courageous, brave women, and I know in your lives that you have had to be courageous in ways that you should never have been asked to. I want to honor that you both are already brave.

 TB & AC: Thank you.

I wonder if we will ever be able to fully absorb or process the amount of loss that has been experienced in such a short amount of time, but I’ve been interested to see the way in which artists have become a kind of essential worker during this time. People have turned to music and dancing, this notion of coming together as a community, in order to mourn—as they have for millennia.

At the end of the Chasing Magic film, you have a written dedication to dancer superheroes. That speaks to the resiliency and vocational power that fuels artists, and it reminds me of the Toni Morrison quote, “Artists have a really bad habit of being resilient,” which can be both our kryptonite and our magic, right? Our fields and artists have drawn upon that resiliency over the past year and a half. To your minds, what have you seen that’s positive, and what poses challenges to our field going forward? 

AC: I was super impressed and inspired by how quickly artists innovated—how quickly they said, “Oh, wait a minute. This can’t happen? Well”—like Torya said—“what’s possible? How can I still reach my community? How can I still stay engaged with myself, with my art? How can I shift this to online? How can I make my art more interesting?” That was positive.

TB: I feel like artists did a lot to skill up. I mean, I never thought I would direct a film or become a Zoom expert. We have all gained so many more skills, and that’s a good thing. I have also seen artists become more uncompromising, and more vocal about how they’re feeling and what they need and why certain things weren’t working for them. I see some shifts from the tall, stacked ladder to a flat “we’re all in this together” model, and I hope we move forward with that.

What does “chasing magic” mean for you?

TB: Well, first, Ayodele always says that tap is magic.

AC: And the “chasing” part of it to me is the feeling when you’re in a room and the synergy is perfect: You’re inspired. You feel like you’re being innovative. You’ve got it. You captured the lightning in the bottle, right? And it feels so great, and then you feel so great and then you come back the next day or the next week or the next performance, and that feeling is gone. But you know it exists. You know that that feeling, that magic is possible because you’ve experienced it. You’ve felt it come through you.

That’s one of the things that keeps me putting my tap shoes on: I want to keep getting to that feeling and to that moment. So that is really the chasing of magic that I was referring to initially. And for this project, it also refers to what happens when you come together with other people to express anything that might possibly be in you, in that moment, and to honor the moment and be okay with that. To say, “Today, this is what it is right now, and this is the best that I can offer, and I hope that it is received with love and with joy.”

TB: I think that’s also what we do every day when we wake up, when we’re hoping that something joyful or unexpected will happen. We hope for a moment of transcendence, for a moment of falling in love. Whatever it is, I think Chasing Magic is a metaphor for living your life while learning about and honoring legacy and joy and friendships and expressing your culture. All of those things have their own type of magic.

Do you have thoughts about what you want audiences to take away from the Chasing Magic experience?

AC: I feel like my mission is always the same, and that is that I just want people to feel the love that I have. I think that’s my mission, always—all I want to do is to invite people to feel what I feel, and to appreciate it and to recognize it in themselves. If you see joy in me, it’s because you have that in your life or you want that in your life. If you see virtuosity, it’s because there’s something that you do as well that you have dedicated your life to, something that feels as fulfilling. That’s the magic that I’m chasing, that I think we’re all chasing. We have it in us, and it’s worthy of pursuit. It’s worthy of acknowledgement. It’s worthy of our attention.

Jill Johnson served as Dance Director of the Harvard Dance Center; Head of Dance for Theater, Dance & Media (TDM); Senior Lecturer in TDM; and Founder/Artistic Director of the Harvard Dance Project from 2011-2021. In 2021/22 she’ll be working on commissioned choreographic work, teaching, consulting, and performing in an international tour of William Forsythe’s A Quiet Evening of Dance.

Torya Beard and Ayodele Casel. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva.

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