“Tap is magic,” says Ayodele Casel. And anyone who has seen the award-winning dancer/choreographer conjure community, connection, and joy in her spirited performances will know just what she means. She calls her new show “Chasing Magic,” which the American Repertory Theater presents Sept. 25 through Oct. 9.
It will be the first live performance following the show’s premiere as a film, presented during the pandemic by the Joyce Theater. And it marks the first live programming at the Loeb Drama Center since pandemic closures. Casel brings with her most of the stellar cast from the film version. Dancers include Amanda Castro, Naomi Funaki, John Manzari, and Anthony Morigerato, and Grammy Award winner Arturo O’Farrill is among the musicians for most of the work’s run.
From Broadway to the White House, from featured soloist to ensemble standout as the first woman to join Savion Glover’s Not Your Ordinary Tappers, the 46-year-old Casel has established herself as a tap dancer, actor, and choreographer of depth and heart. Early training as an actor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she took her first tap dance class, inspired a love of storytelling and narrative in her work, which she has used to explore themes of identity, culture, and communication. Much in demand, Casel has developed a number of projects that elevate the forgotten voices of women in tap, especially talented women of color often eclipsed in recognition by their male peers. Recently featured on a USPS Forever stamp, she will contribute choreography for the upcoming Broadway revival of “Funny Girl.”
We caught up with Casel by phone in New York, where she and her wife Torya Beard, who directs “Chasing Magic,” just opened a percussive dance festival at New York’s Little Island.
Q. I love the title “Chasing Magic.” For me, it sums up what we all should be doing every day. What does it mean for you?
A. It’s about believing in the possibility of greatness and to strive for it. I first said it about that moment in artistic practice and performance when everything clicks in the body and heart and there’s this glow that happens — you catch lightning in bottle. It’s about, how do I capture that?
Q. The show was conceived as a concert, then pivoted to film when the pandemic hit. Now you’re premiering a live version. What has the process of adapting been like?
A. My practice is in tap dance improvisation, so I tend to go with what the moment is requiring. I think we created something [with the film] that had its own magic. Now for the stage, it’s a different experience, more transitions, moving in space in real time. I suspect we’ll all be excited to be in the room together recapturing what it’s like to be in the theater in communion with an audience.
Q. Can you describe the context of the show?
A. We developed the show in chapters. There is an arc of reflection for each moment — joy, friendship, gratitude, culture, legacy. That means different things to different people, so it’s a journey, moments of conversation and connection. One of the things I love about tap dancing is the way that it lives — solos, duos, trios, improvisation, choreography — and each individual artist gives it its life. It’s important for me to deliver that freedom.
Every night is different. It’s dangerous and exciting and thrilling and oddly liberating. It’s about really listening to what’s happening in the space, what’s the energy and how do we build on that with no agenda other than creating something in the moment that can’t be replicated but still is full, responding truthfully to how we feel. It’s a really joyous form.
Q. What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
A. How to recognize the depth of expression possible in tap. It’s rooted in an incredible need for expression, borne out of oppressive circumstances. I want to deepen their perception of why we do what we do, to transform the way people experience and view tap dancing.
Q. As the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and a Black father you didn’t meet until age 17, you describe a rather fractured childhood never quite comfortable in your own skin, moving from the Bronx to Puerto Rico in the fourth grade, struggling to fit in because you didn’t speak Spanish, then coming back to New York and not feeling quite at home there. What impact did finding tap in college have on your sense of identity and purpose and direction?
A. I saw Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for the first time, that magic they had, and was intrigued at 17 to attempt to do what they were doing, but I didn’t know it would be possible for me. [Fellow NYU student] Baakari Wilder taught me this form is really anchored in Black people, this was my legacy. It did become another language for me, another outlet of expression in a really deep way.
It’s going back to when African people were brought here [as enslaved people], their command over drums and the power of communication through rhythm. The innovation when those drums were taken away, and you had to transfer that communication into your body in a way nobody can take away from you is so genius.
Q. You’ve called tap a marginalized art form, especially for Black women. Do you feel a mission to address sexism and racism in your work?
A. Always, every single time. I can’t help it. I’ve had a wonderful career, but I wish I knew as much about dancers like [Black tap virtuoso] Louise Madison as people know about me. But I can bring people along with me. I’m here because [of] their energy. It brings me the greatest sense of purpose and joy to illuminate what the journey has been in this art form.
Q. How have the past 18 months reshaped you as an artist, as a human being with intention?
A. It has activated me. I’ve had a lot of reflection on the last 25 years of my career as a tap dancer and felt really great at what I’ve accomplished. So what’s left for me to do? I want to amplify dancers in my community, bring others in the experience, drive home the point how incredibly awesome tap dancing is.
The longer I do it, the richer my expression will be. Age is only a number. Even if I have a not-so-successful session or show, I know I can keep coming back to it and chase that magic.
AYODELE CASEL: CHASING MAGIC
Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Sept. 25-Oct. 9. Tickets from $25. americanrepertorytheater.org
Interview was edited and condensed.
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.