Ayodele Casel is on tap for ‘Funny Girl’

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When chorus auditions began last December for the lively Broadway revival of “Funny Girl,” many hopefuls struggled with the tap combination. Some, one choreographer recalled, stopped halfway through, gave prayer hands of gratitude, and walked out.

If they were expecting simple eight beats, they were faced with a much more complex and rhythmic “Rubik’s Cube”, according to Jared Grimes, 38, the actor and professional tap dancer who plays Eddie Ryan , mentor to showgirl Fanny. Brice, played by Beanie Feldstein.

The “mad scientist” – Mr. Grimes’ description – behind the rigorous footwork was Ayodele Casel, a master tap dancer who will make his Broadway debut with unique creative billing: tap choreographer. It’s a credit that rarely, if ever, appears in the mainstream theater world.

Ellenore Scott, known for her work on the Off Broadway production of ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ is the show’s choreographer, but ‘Funny Girl’ director Michael Mayer knew she wasn’t tap-dancing . So he offered producers a “wacky idea” of enlisting Ms Casel, 46, a mentee of Savion Glover and Gregory Hines, to modernize the musical’s tap numbers, like the military theme in Act II “ Rat Tat Tat Tat”.

Ms. Casel’s demanding brand of tap dancing is “like the best dagger in the world that claws at the ground,” Mr. Grimes said. Mr Hines, who died in 2003, once praised her in an interview as a ‘monster of nature’ – someone he sometimes borrowed steps from. The first time Mr. Mayer saw Ms. Casel on stage, performing his autobiographical one-woman play “While I Have the Floor” at New York City Center in 2016, he recalled how she seemed to float.

“It was almost as if she had the floor come to her,” said Mr. Mayer, 61. “I’ve never seen a man who had that kind of grace.” He was also struck by Ms. Casel’s sly sense of cool, from her trademark hairstyle – a hybrid high bun, low ponytail – to her metallic silver oxford slides, a departure from the expected feminine heels.

“Funny Girl,” a Barbra Streisand-related musical and show tunes, is now imbued with a multicultural artistic perspective. Ms. Casel is the daughter of a black father and a Puerto Rican mother, raised in the Bronx and Rincón, Puerto Rico, and raised on both Celia Cruz’s salsa and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ Old Hollywood movies, a pair that seemed both ambitious and unattainable.

“I remember dreaming of being considered a tap dancer,” said Ms. Casel, who took tap as an elective in movement while attending New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. . But she said to herself, she said, “No one will ever see me like this. There’s no way. I am not blond. I am not white. I am not a movie star.

“‘Funny Girl’ is about a woman who didn’t look like everyone, didn’t look like everyone and said, “I’m going to do with my life what I want it to be, so be it”, has said Mr. Mayer. mentioned. Ms Casel, he said, “did the exact same thing”.

Historically, according to Ms Casel, critics have said “women lacked the ability, the physique, to take flashy steps.” While at NYU in 1996, she lingered in the back of the Ambassador Theater during the Broadway run of “Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk,” watching the show “a million times on my student budget of $10”. She was tied to Young Black Clogs, but the cast was intentionally all-male.

Tony Award-nominated tap dancer and choreographer Ted Louis Levy (“Jelly’s Last Jam”), who assisted Mr. Glover in the choreography of “Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk,” remarked the ubiquitous Mrs. Casel.

“You knew why she was there,” said Mr Levy, 61. “She wanted to know the rhythm and she wanted to know herself.”

Mr Levy said he wanted to invite Ms Casel to a training program that recruited new production talent, but “they wouldn’t let me put a woman there”. Ms. Casel was undeterred: “I showed up and showed up to the point where I could no longer be ignored. »

She attended tap jams around New York wearing Payless ankle boots, which she had affixed tap shoes to. Eventually it reached Mr. Glover’s ear that Ms. Casel “knew the whole show”, she said. She then became the only female member of Mr. Glover’s tap group, Not Your Ordinary Tappers, which made stops at Radio City and the White House, among other venues. At times, she said, her presence in the all-male group was noted with indirect compliments from audience members: “They were like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t even know women were dancing tap dancing’ or ‘you’re just like them'” — a reference to the men in the group.

Has she ever been bullied?

Ms. Casel shrugged and said, “I’m from the Bronx.

When she was 9, her mother, Aida Tirado, sent her to live with Ms Casel’s maternal grandparents in rural Rincón, “to protect me from a really difficult domestic situation”, Ms Casel said. The decision was painful, Ms. Tirado recalled, but, she said, “as a mother, you take care of your child. You want the best for her, so you do what you have to do. The music of Celia Cruz and José Feliciano was pervasive, as was a sense of heritage, Ms. Casel said, an “understanding that there are people who came before you and sacrificed a lot so that you could be very comfortable”.

An insatiable student of history, Ms. Casel has long emphasized tap’s black roots.

“I know a lot of people attribute African and Irish influence. I’m going to be radical and say it’s a largely, predominantly black experience,” Ms. Casel said. “A lot of people don’t know John Bubbles,” she said, referring to the teacher from Astaire, one of tap’s “ancestors”. “He changed and elevated the way we could move our feet by adding notes and dropping heels.”

She’s adamant about speaking the names of black tap dancers forgotten by history, including on her solo show “Diary of a Tap Dancer.” Jeni LeGon was ‘the first black woman to be signed to a major Hollywood studio, but was dropped after Eleanor Powell joined’; Louise Madison (“people said she would eat Gregory Hines alive”); and Juanita Pitts, a dancer in the 1940s, who, like Ms. Casel, was known for performing in costume and flat.

“They learned by watching the men, by taking the steps backstage or in the alley, the same way I did during ‘Noise, Funk,'” Ms. Casel said. It was “heartbreaking to know that 50 years later the same thing was happening.”

With the cover of “Funny Girl“, Opening April 24 at the August Wilson Theater, Ms. Casel reclaims tap dancing’s legacy in one of Broadway’s holiest productions.

“We have the opportunity to infuse story and a rhythmic sensibility that maybe wasn’t present when the show was first seen,” she said. In Harvey Fierstein’s update of the 1964 book, Eddie Ryan’s role was expanded and cast for the first time on Broadway with a black actor (Mr. Grimes). The character is promoted to dance director of the Ziegfeld Follies, creating a natural vehicle for Ms. Casel’s choreography.

“I look at Eddie Ryan and I think he’s the Baby Laurance and Sammy Davis Jr. conglomerate,” she said. His dizzying combinations are meant to evoke what Mr. Ryan “would have choreographed with his experience, which was so rich as a black man” in the early 1900s. “The thing is, you didn’t see that. We were seeing a very organized version of tap dancing in Hollywood.

One of the most transformed numbers under Ms. Casel is “Eddie’s Tap”, a solo by Mr. Grimes. During rehearsals in February, there was booming piano and drum accompaniment, but Ms. Casel’s syncopations, performed by Mr. Grimes in dusty blue tap shoes, became the music instead. For Ms. Casel, the solo “sounds like freedom and it sounds like swing and it sounds like heaven”.

Mr. Mayer said, “That’s the magic of Ayo.

Mr Grimes, who calls Ms Casel a mentor, said she was ‘a young legend’. When he was 14, Mr. Grimes’ mother used to drive him from High Point, North Carolina, to New York to take Ms. Casel’s tap dancing lessons at Steps on Broadway.

“It’s come full circle,” he said of their “Funny Girl” collaboration.

For Mr. Mayer, modernizing “Funny Girl” has meant inviting overlooked influences. “All the artists in the room are very committed to creating a show that responds to the moment we live in,” he said.

Ms. Casel and others make the show “intrinsically contemporary”, said Torya Beard, the assistant production manager, who is also Ms. Casel’s wife. “Who tells the story, what we carry in our body when we sing, when we dance, when we laugh.”

The show’s choreography could well create a splashy, mainstream moment for tap dancing, with the dance itself becoming a star alongside Ms Feldstein.

“Beanie is fearless,” Ms Casel wrote in an email. “When she dances, I see pure joy in her expression. I know that feeling.” (In a behind-the-scenes video posted to Instagram, Ms. Feldstein said her favorite part of rehearsals was watching Ms. Casel teach “Rat Tat Tat Tat life,” she says in the video.)

Instead of a biography in the ‘Funny Girl’ poster, Ms Casel thanks ‘the female tap dancers who led the way in this moment’, including Ms LeGon, Lois Bright and Ms Pitts, bearing the memory of her . ancestors.

“My name on this poster means they’re here with me too,” she said.

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