Ayodele Casel likes the mantra “tap is magic,” so it’s fitting that the artist’s latest offering, an enchanting blend of music and dance at the American Repertory Theater, is titled “Ayodele Casel: Chasing Magic.”
For Casel, the show’s name is a reference to both her teenage memories of watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers float across the floor in “Top Hat,” “Swing Time,” and “Follow the Fleet,” and her appreciation for tap’s power to connect and transform.
“I became a practitioner of the form and I uncovered and discovered the layers of expression that happen with just two pieces of metal on your feet, the infinite possibilities musically, and the way that you can cover space and make so much sound at the same time. That to me is magic,” said Casel, who took a tap class her first year at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and never looked back.
Like much of Casel’s work, “Magic” merges the traditional with the modern. An ensemble piece featuring singers, dancers, and musicians — including vocalist Crystal Monee Hall and percussionist Keisel Jiménez — the show is an ode to musical stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age, a tribute to jazz, and an embrace of African movement and contemporary dance. It’s also an homage to overlooked tap pioneers and a celebration of collaboration and improvisation.
At one point in “Magic,” Casel takes the stage for an unrehearsed number with her “musical sparring partners” — pianists Anibal Cruz Cesar, who trained at Berklee, and Grammy-winning Arturo O’Farrill, who will replace Cruz later in the run. “It’s completely spontaneous and improvised,” said Casel. “I think that when there is trust involved and there’s a willingness on behalf of both parties to discover something, magic is possible.”
The live stage performance grew out of a video project Casel developed during lockdown. Eager to get back to work, the tap artist didn’t hesitate when New York’s Joyce Theater called in January asking her to create an online show. Working with her longtime director, Torya Beard, she explored ways to lean into what was “actually happening … we had been isolated, I hadn’t seen any of my friends, we hadn’t been dancing, or involved in any kind of rehearsal process in a year,” said Casel, who called some of those talented friends to help her.