‘Chasing Magic’ brings the A.R.T back to life

Anthony Morigerato, Ayodele Casel, John Manzari, and Kurt Csolak in Ayodele Casel: Chasing Magic at American Repertory Theater through October 9. Credit Liza Voll.

CAMBRIDGE – Ayodele Casel didn’t know right away that tap dancing was for her.

She didn’t know its history and how it related to her, and how women – especially women of color – had taken a back seat when it came to performing and choreographing tap.

Casel, 46, the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and a Black father who was born in the Bronx and raised in Puerto Rico, helped change all that. After taking her first class at 17 at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she has starred from Broadway to the White House, as the first woman to join Savion Glover’s Not Your Ordinary Tappers, earning a passel of honors as a dancer, actor and choreographer.

The joy she and her fellow performers feel about being able to perform live on  stage again radiates into the audience as the American Repertory Theater and the Loeb Drama Center are  re-opening their doors to live audiences with “Ayodele Casel: Chasing Magic,” now at the Loeb Drama Center through Oct. 9.

“Chasing Magic” was conceived as a concert, performed virtually last spring and made into a film, presented during the pandemic by the Joyce Theatre. It is directed by Torya Beard, Casel’s wife, also an accomplished dancer and choreographer.  

While choreographing for tap, Casel also sees herself as a storyteller. She incorporates into “Chasing Magic” themes — joy, friendship, gratitude, culture, legacy – using a meld of dance and music.

But she is also a disciple of improvisation, and the numbers she performs with Grammy Award-winning pianist Arturo O’Farrill– also an improvisational genius who will perform at select performances — are highlights.

And while Casel gives her cast of dancers, stars in their own right — Amanda Castro, Naomi Funaki, John Manzari, Anthony Morigerato, and Kurt Csolak — plenty of space to strut their own stuff, they often also join as one in a noisy, joyous collaboration of precision tapping. The audience, most of whom were attending their first live theatrical production in 18 months, roared.

In an interview with The Boston Globe, Casel acknowledged her fellow dancers.  “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.”

Casel wisely assembled a group of celebrated musicians besides O’Farrill adept at being able to move quickly with the performers as tempo and style dictates. They include pianist Anibal Cezar Cruz, a recent Berklee College of Music graduate; celebrated vocalist Crystal Monee Hall; and percussionist Keisel Jiménez, who also performs with O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra.

Casel, recently featured on a USPS Forever Stamp, is still finding new worlds to conquer. She will contribute choreography for the upcoming Broadway revival of “Funny Girl.”

In remarks before and after “Chasing Magic,” A.R.T. Artistic Producer Mark Lunsford and Artistic Director Diane Paulus, along with director Beard, thanked theater-goers and welcomed them back.

The A.R.T. is part of a consortium of Boston-area theaters requiring all theater-goers to be masked and also asking for proof of vaccination or a recent Covid test before entering.

American Repertory Theater presents the live premiere of “Ayodele Casel: Chasing Magic.” Created  by Ayodele Casel. Directed by Torya Beard. Chasing Magic is performed on the set of Macbeth In Stride, designed by Dan Soule. Lighting design Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew. Sound design by Alex Giorgetti. At the Loeb Drama Center through Oct. 9. Americanrepertorytheater.org