"A Little Old, A Little New" Tap artist Luke Hickey premieres his new work at Birdland in NYC

Luke Hickey, one of tap's young emerging artists and voices, captured the attention of educators, producers, and professional dancers around him at just 10 years old. A recent graduate of Pace University, he is also a choreographer, filmmaker, and actor from Chapel Hill, NC making his own mark in the heart of NYC with the premiere of his show "a little Old, a little New". Here are some of his thoughts on inspiration, age, and why you shouldn't wait to express your creative impulses. 

Ayodele Casel: I’m super excited about your upcoming show. I have no idea what to expect because I haven’t ever seen your work but knowing you as a human and as an artist, in all of your facets, I just know that everything you do is going to be really thoughtful and beautiful so I want to ask you. How’s it going? How do you feel? Is this your first time presenting your work in NYC?

Luke Hickey: This is my first time presenting work in NY, actually anywhere. I’ve had moments where I’ve had the chance to choreograph different pieces for different things here and there but this is the first time I’ve been able to create a piece of work in full and something I’ve felt really passionately about for a long time. It’s culminated to this very quickly. I was expecting my first show to happen in my mid 20’s or 30’s. Only because I felt that’s what was normal or expected of tap dancers, to wait. I felt that pressure to NOT do anything. But about a year ago I felt the urge to create things on my own, mostly inside of other people’s works. I felt there were different ways that I wanted to say something or a different process than how I would’ve taken it. Through that discovery and the happenings of this wonderful space (Birdland) being put in my hands to create something in any way that I wanted to- I pulled the trigger right away because I knew that if I put it off I would’ve waited until my mid 30’s. I knew I was ready for it because of how passionate and how sure I was in what I wanted to say. I never wanted to create a show without knowing what I wanted to say.

AC: What DO you want to say?

LH: Since I’ve moved to NY people much older than me have said they’ve been inspired by me and those words tremendously impacted my growth and the way I view my creative expression. This piece is to say thank you to those people who have helped shape who I am and also to say to future generations never to wait for someone more seasoned than you to dictate how your process goes or the choices you make. Of course, you want to follow their lead because they’re more experienced but sometimes you discover things at 17 that others discover at 36.

AC: When I was younger we had so many older dance masters around us and Gregory Hines, as you know is one of my biggest heroes who I was also fortunate enough to have as a mentor. I ALWAYS knew how inspired he was by young people. He was so vocal about it. Also, having Jimmy Slyde around, you could see that he drew from the energy of all the young people around him, who idolized him and were so eagerly listening. I have always felt the connection to the older generation and they were equally as involved in our growth and development as artists. I’m thrilled that you are giving voice to that connection of older and younger folks. It’s important. I feel like all Gregory talked about was that he loved young people. You’re continuing the tradition from the younger side. I love that. What was that transitional moment for you? Realizing I’m not 29 or 32 but I have something to say.

LH: It was a process. I was offered the space in June. It seemed a little too good to be true at the time- the initial idea of someone trusting me. I’ve been going to Birdland for 2 or 3 years now consistently to feel the energy of the people there and to learn more about the history of the space. I never campaigned there to get something but just to absorb what I could. For Jim, one of the bookers, to sit me down and say “what would you like to do?” was gratifying. I wasn’t campaigning for that opportunity. It organically came through my curiosity and respect for everyone who’s performed and who has created in that space. It was exciting and started off my entire summer, my busiest summer, after graduating from college. It was kind of like the caffeine that I’m still riding. The pressure and stress of leaving school were finances, artistic dependency, who I’m depending on for work, so for this to happen a month after graduation was very reassuring that I am still a student but am also ready to take up a new position.

AC: A Little Old, A Little New. Why this? Why now? Why you?

LH: Why this? Everyone in the show- John Manzari, Andre Imanishi, my band Davis Whitfield, Daniel Duke, Dan Nadeau, everyone is very much an old soul and I love that because it shows not just that they embrace who they are now and what music is now but history is also very important to everyone in the show. We all have different ties to how we were brought up and trained, how we see and hear music. Everyone is so in tune and I carefully crafted who I asked to be in the show. Everyone in this show are brilliant artists who encapsulate the idea of a little old and a little new. This show sprinkles a lot of references of people that I’m inspired by today, people that have been gone for many years, music that is still living on that was created in the 1920’s and we have music that was created in 2016. It is a lot of things but it’s very carefully organized and not too much of a variety show. Old and new, you feel both at the same time. We see that with hip-hop music mixed with jazz music. In musicians that inspire me like Robert Glasper, Corey Henry, Anderson Paak. All of these talented musicians who hear Coltrane and Ellington and also hear hip hop music today and they’ve found this symphony of both. I consider Andre and John in the same facet. They both have their complete individual styles as artists, both young but know and appreciate their history of tap and embrace where they come from. It’s beautiful to work with them. People started telling me when I was touring at 10 years old that I acted way older than my age. I appreciated the compliment but I always wanted to still be my age. I wanted to be mature but embrace my youth. This show is how we embrace our youth but still show our maturity through our art and our music. 

AC: I appreciate you making that distinction about enjoying your youth but still letting your genius show. I think I’m going to be 92 dancing with 15 year olds. There’s no hierarchy when it pertains to genius and age. There is a genius in 5 year olds and even if it’s not developed it’s there and that’s beautiful. So, tell us, why now?

LH: I’ve chosen to do it now. I could’ve absolutely said let’s revisit this in a year or 5 years. This is a great turning point in my life and career. This feels like a full release of all these ideas, colors, shapes, sounds, and things I’ve had inside of me for a long time. My ultimate release is being able to create a piece of work inside of a space that I love and feel comfortable in, [I’m] in a city that I’ve been inspired by since I knew what tap was. New York, New York has been my idea of the ultimate theater for tap for a long time. It’s a gift to be able to create this now in 2018 with such a dark year that we’ve had. If I get to bring a glimpse of light to anyone who comes to see it or hears about it or sees one of the posters or promos then I feel like I’ve done my job. I also chose November because it makes me think of family and love and mentorship. November is when I get to go home and I get to spend time with my mentor, Gene Medler. When I think of comfort and support, I think of November. It’s the week before Thanksgiving and I get to share my love with those who come and then I get to go home and spend time with Gene and my family. 

AC: Lovely. And, Why you?

LH: I’m looking at my notebook, which I’ve filled almost completely since I started this project, and I’m looking at a page where it just says “why me?”. This is the hardest question I’ve had to answer because  I think about older generations and new generations. When is the standard for a young artist to begin creating his or her own work? I want to be true to myself and not just true to ego or to create something just to have a name. I settled that early on. I felt I had a hard time putting myself in the center or front of my pieces because I really wanted the show to be about the artists that I’ve asked to work with me. That is why I feel comfortable creating and presenting this work. I feel like the spotlight isn’t for me, it’s for the show as a whole, and I hope it speaks for itself. This creation and these references that are so true and honest for me. Why me? Why not? I have something unique to say and I feel very confident that I should speak my truth. 

AC: I love that question. It can seem like a trick question, or a revelation of one’s ego.  I say, why you? Because nobody has your experience. Nobody has your point of view. I think it’s selfish of us, of every human being alive to withhold their love, their appreciation, and those things that are really beautiful that unify and shine a light so positively on our humanity. To squash that, to make that not exist in the world does a disservice to the universe. Take up space in the world because your life, my life matters, especially when it’s aligned with the good of everybody else. Do you know what I mean?

LH: Absolutely.

AC: So always, yes, You. And what I’ve learned over and over again the last few years is that by sharing your experience you really help other people who are afraid, to tell theirs. That is what I hope my life’s work will be. On another note, can you give me one word to describe each of your musicians?

LH: I’ll start with John. I’ve known him the longest. I would say he’s the epitome of class, on or off the floor. Whatever he’s expressing it’s always said with such elegance and respect. What he says is what he means all the time. Every show I’ve seen him do and has been a part of he’s elevated the experience and brought a class to it that would be missed if he were not there. Andre is so mature and sophisticated. He’s so smart, articulate with what he wants to say and he’s so humble. Daniel Duke, my Bassist, evokes simplicity and uses silences and breathe to project his contribution to the overall sound. Dan Nadeau, my drummer, is naturally playful and instinctual with every choice he makes. His musical choices are unique but are always to the goal of enriching the sound of the band to the best of his abilities. Davis, he’s constantly blowing my mind. I learn something new inside of the keys he’s playing. His phrasing and flexibility inside any style of music is really remarkable. I’ve never seen such musical intelligence in someone his age. He’s very specific and articulate and he’s so gifted. 
l-r: Andre Imanishi, Luke Hickey, John Manzari

AC: I love this. There’s the saying that you are a reflection of the company you keep and as I hear the words you’ve used to describe the people you’ve been spending a lot of time with- sophistication, class, humility, remarkable, intelligence- take a bow, my friend. That is a reflection of YOU. Is there anything else you’d like to share?

LH: I would really like to say that an important reason I’m doing the show is because of you. I want to make that clear. I, of course, studied with you for a long time but last year when we reconnected and over the past year we’ve spent so much time together. I’ve learned so much about kindness, and respect, and professionalism, and humility, and individualism and protecting my soul and spirit. What I’ve learned from you cannot be unlearned and will never be forgotten and it is a huge reason why I said yes to do this show. Every moment I have spent with these artists I’m constantly thinking how would Ayodele treat them? How would she want me to do this? I know very few people in this world who treat people the way you do and handle this art with the eloquence and class that you do.

AC: Thank you Luke. That means a lot to me. Don’t make me cry. I love that. You’re so welcome my friend. I’m honored to know you and I’m so excited to see your growth and support you along the way. I can’t wait to see your show. I commend every single person who sticks their neck out to create and share their work. It’s such a vulnerable thing and can be scary to share your love and heart with people you don’t know for the first time but it’s an admirable and beautiful thing every time we push against all of the forces that tell us “Not yet. Not now. You’re too young. You’re too old.” All of that needs to go away, so congratulations!

LH: Thank you! 

Catch "a little Old, a little New" at 7pm on November 16th and 17th at BIRDLAND THEATER, 315 West 44th Street, NYC.

The 2017 recipient of the  “Hoofer Award”, Ayodele Casel  premiered her one-woman show "While I Have The Floor" at the Spoleto Arts Festival to rave reviews. A frequent New York City Center collaborator, she served as choreographer for Carole King and Maurice Sendak's musical "Really Rosie" for its Encores! Off Center under the direction of Leigh Silverman, a soloist for Jeanine Tesori’s “Jamboree”, a soloist at Fall For Dance, and a soloist for “¡Adelante Cuba!” as part of Latin Jazz great Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. Ayodele will be leading New York City Center’s “On The Move” in Spring 2019 and she is currently Artist In Residence at Harvard University. 

Hailed by the legendary Gregory Hines as “one of the top young tap dancers in the world,” and by The New York Times as “A tap dancer of unquestionable radiance”, Casel has steadfast become an internationally sought after artist and powerful voice for the art form.