We hear the dancers before we see them, and that’s the point: “Not to watch, but to listen to,” the recorded voice of “Baby” Laurence Jackson instructs. We hear fluttering then see furious tapping as the curtain rises on “Hoofer’s Memory Lab,” which opened New York City Center’s latest “Artists at the Center” program curated by Ayodele Casel.
“Baby” Jackson was a tap dancer whose professional career started at age 12. He went on to dance alongside some of the most important jazz musicians of the 20th century (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum, Charles Mingus, etc.) and was described by the jazz critic Whitney Balliett as “more a drummer than a dancer, [whose] legs and feet were speed and thunder and surprise.” Jackson’s role in tap history is crucial to the art form’s development in relation to modern jazz music, but outside of the tap community, his impact isn’t widely recognized. Brinae Ali, who choreographed “Hoofer’s Memory Lab” in collaboration with dancers Gerson Lanza and Cyrah L. Ward, hopes to change that with her “Baby” Laurence Legacy Project, a mission she is working on as Artist in Residence at the Johns Hopkins Billie Holiday Center for Liberation Arts. Ali pulls on her Legacy Project for “Hoofer’s Memory Lab,” speaking Jackson’s name and telling a bit of his story in connection to some of her own biography. Ali and Lanza tap dance alongside Ward who, dressed in white and carrying a basket, dances barefoot to a live rhythm section.
“Hoofer’s Memory Lab” introduced two main points that would recur throughout Casel’s evening. The first was an acknowledgement of tap history, particularly its African American roots. The second was an invitation to listen closely, as it’s only through an understanding of history that a present can be practiced and a future can be imagined.
Close listening was especially important for Caleb Teicher and Naomi Funaki’s “Little Things,” which followed on the program. Teicher and Funaki were joined by Jared Alexander and Amanda Castro, all four dressed in pink silk shirts and dress pants. Teicher walked onstage holding a tiny pink piano. They set it down and took a seat, crisscross in front of the instrument. One of Teicher’s many strengths as a performer is their ability to include the audience subtly yet intimately in a way that puts us at ease: Just before sitting down, Teicher glanced slyly over their shoulder, as if to signal an inside joke that would remain just between us. As the title hints, what makes Teicher and Funaki’s piece are the little things: a single snap of fingers to end a phrase; an even canon of rhythm that trickles through the group; the out-of-tune clinking of Teicher’s piano.
Three more world premieres concluded Act I. “Interlaced,” a melding of tap and hip hop dance was performed powerfully by Jared Alexander, Izaiah Montaque Harris, and the three outstanding hip hop dancers Jai’Quin Coleman, Roukijah Rooks, and Tomoe “Beasty” Carr, who choreographed the piece with Alexander. “El Camino” was the first of Casel’s choreography on the program and featured four women dancing earnestly, including Amanda Castro soloing with contemporary movement. Last was a lovely solo to Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” danced by Dario Natarelli, choreographed by Natarelli and Michelle Dorrance.
The second act opened like the first, prioritizing ancestry. Hank Smith, the oldest cast member, stood center stage behind a screen. Projections of historical footage lay over him: a joyful hologram of Gregory Hines dancing, but also a disturbing clip of a white performer applying blackface. Samples of speech rain down on Smith; James Baldwin’s voice echoes.
Casel’s “Where We Dwell V.2” (the first edition premiered in 2021) is a series of vignettes which explore tap dance as an art and culture, where and who it came from, and ultimately where it’s headed. Casel’s inclusion of a range of dance styles throughout the evening suggests a focus on versatility and interdisciplinary collaboration in tap work (which also recognizes tap’s multidisciplinary roots).
Her decision to seldom feature herself highlights values of democracy and community, as well as a remarkable humility.
Throughout the evening and especially in “Where We Dwell,” Casel makes a number of appearances, but primarily as an ensemble woman. In “I Got Fascinating Rhythm,” a section of “Where We Dwell” which she dances with Alexander and Harris, Casel is a relaxed and easy-going member of the trio. She’s not flamboyant but holds the rhythm right underneath her – it’s clean and syncopated, musical and graceful.
In another section called “Mine,” which highlights five women, Casel demonstrates her generosity of spirit. Towards the end, each woman has a chance to solo, a moment to show off, maybe even to outdo each other with tricks or superfast phrases. The other four women were excellent, and each displayed her own unique strength. Casel was the last to go. She was brief, but she took her time, intentionally pulling ideas from the soloists ahead of her, mirroring their rhythms and dynamics, then building upon them like a jazz musician. She hadn’t just watched, she’d listened, too. In response to these peers and protégés, as well as the tap ancestors who inhabited the stage, it was as if Casel was saying, “I like what you did there. Let’s see what we can do with it.”