Tap dancer Ayodele Casel is ‘Chasing Magic’

One of tap’s biggest stars brings her ‘pandemic baby’ back to the stage

When tap star Ayodele Casel and jazz pianist Arturo O’Farrill improvise together, it is impossible to tell who is leading each new thought as O’Farrill shifts between melodies and Casel varies the tempo and temperature of her sounds. The whole thing feels like a curious and intimate conversation, the kind you want to eavesdrop on. As Chasing Magic makes its way to The Joyce Theater stage Nov. 2-13, New York City will have the opportunity to listen in.

Casel describes Chasing Magic as her “pandemic baby.” The project was conceived as a film for The Joyce Theater’s digital program in early 2021. That fall, the film was reimagined as a stage show to open up American Repertory Theater’s return to live performances. The plan was to return to The Joyce for a run in early 2022, but the omicron variant forced its cancellation.

Ten months later, things are looking up. Performing Chasing Magic again, a full year since its stage premiere and nearly two years since the film was made, feels cathartic after all the interruptions, postponements, and adaptations.

But at the very start of the pandemic, Casel wasn’t sure if she would ever return to the stage. While many dancers were moving the furniture around their homes to make room to train, Casel spent the better part of the year reflecting on her career and wondering about the path forward.

“I decided to just sit down. I mean, I was really tired anyway,” Casel said. “Basically, it was a lot of mental work asking what have I accomplished. And if this is the end — because we didn’t know what was happening — then how and what does that look like moving forward?”

To say Casel is accomplished is a gross understatement. She is tap choreographer for the Broadway revival of Funny Girl; won a Bessie Award in 2021 for Chasing Magic’s virtual presentation; and has had posts at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and Harvard University. Learning to tap as a college student and coming up as the sole woman in tap legend Savion Glover’s company Not Your Ordinary Tappers, she has gone on to be named one of the “Biggest Breakout Stars of 2019” by The New York Times and was featured on one of the U.S. Postal Service’s 2021 stamps honoring tap.

Tap dancer Ayodele Casel (center) and the Chasing Magic cast practice for their November shows in New York.

Anthony Geathers for Andscape

But any swagger emanating from the artist comes from the contrast of her expressive feet and magnetic presence, against her cool, collected style. Casel’s interest in the power of identity — as a queer woman who is Black and Puerto Rican — seems to be mirrored in her unique tapping style, which folds in diverse influences such as the salsa music she listened to as a child and her obsession with old films featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

“It’s like she is dancing on water,” said tap artist Naomi Funaki. She met Casel when she first moved to the United States from Japan and wasn’t yet fluent in English. “Like, not even water, I think she is dancing on air — her weight changes are a miracle. She taught me that I can literally have a conversation with people, deep communication, without language, through tap dance.”

When the Chasing Magic cast gathered on a Monday in October for their first rehearsal in almost a year, the small, wood floor studio shuddered with a torrent of sounds, percussive and celebratory. Quick with a laugh or to swoop in with a hug, Casel flowed in and out of the group, her long hair styled in her signature topknot.

At one point during a section of solos, the 47-year-old Casel hammed it up when it was her turn by playing the old lady, clutching her back and miming the use of a cane. Even as she paused to consider the details of the show order with director Torya Beard or to offer advice from the front of the room, any sense of hierarchy melted the moment she jumped into the dancing. The mood of the room was more like a band fine-tuning a groove, Casel humming the phrasing and accents as they tapped, than a dance company doing the drudge work of cleaning up steps.

And as a bandleader, Casel is more interested in imagining a future for tap than holding court.

“What became really clear [during 2020] was that I feel very fulfilled in my career and I wanted to amplify the voices of my community,” she said.

When Aaron Mattocks, then director of programming at The Joyce, approached her in 2021 about a project for their digital season, the filming and storytelling process was not entirely new. Casel and Beard had already been making the documentary video series Diary of a Tap Dancer for several years.

Freddie Thornley (left) and Ayodele Casel (right) perform during the 2019 SeriousFun Children’s Network Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on May 23, 2019, in New York City.

Mike Coppola/SeriousFun Children’s Network Inc./Getty Images

At home with Beard, her wife and artistic collaborator, Casel began brainstorming. With dancers having relocated all over the country, they focused on getting videos of choreography she had created with Anthony Morigerato to the crew that was still in New York. Since coronavirus vaccines were not yet available, they shot the film in a six-hour marathon on location at the theater after just one day of rehearsal. Filmed as a series of vignettes, Chasing Magic stood out in the avalanche of virtual dance content created during the pandemic — for the high quality of the dancing, Kurt Csolak’s cinematography, and its thematic structure.

“I think people loved seeing the theater in that film,” recalled Casel. “They loved that we offered dances that represented chapters or feelings in our lives, like gratitude and joy, culture and legacy, magic and inspiration. Those were themes and words to really ruminate on at a time when we were very isolated.”

Those key words also offered windows into the personal meaning of the dances, deployed as titles leading into each section.

“At first we thought we were going to do [a] voiceover leading into each thing,” said Casel. “It was sketched out and I was trying to record it as I was watching what I was doing [on the screen]. It sounded so cheesy and corny. I was like, ‘No, I’m not going out like that.’ ”

Instead, she tried to distill what each dance meant to her.

“It’s like it came punching out through the screen,” Casel said of the themes. “For me and Arturo, it was trust because I never worry at all about what is going to happen when we get in the room together and to be able to share whatever happens in the moment without judgment and with a lot of freedom, requires a lot of trust. And I love him for it.”

Tap dancer Ayodele Casel’s (left) mission is to transform the way audiences view tap dancing.

Anthony Geathers for Andscape

The feelings are mutual.

“I feel such a bond with Ayodele, it’s almost a spiritual alignment,” said O’Farrill. “Her energy is really electric, I almost sense [her] as soon as she enters the room. I think that’s who she came to us as, this spirit of light and energy and electricity. When we enter into that dialogue, it’s very purposeful. We’re really watching each other’s eyes, each other’s hands, each other’s feet. We’re focusing in on the very mechanisms that allow us to be able to improvise on the spot in front of hundreds of people.”

“Some days the way it syncs up, it’s a little crazy,” said Casel. “To have the same musical impulse at the same time, to voice it when you can do any kind of rhythm on that piano, or I can do anything. And then we both do that. It’s just bananas.”

As Chasing Magic returns to the stage, Casel and O’Farrill’s duet continues to be an integral section. But the evolution from film to live shows has required other adjustments.

“I lined everything up and thought about where can we do seamless transitions. What do we need to fill it in?” said Beard. “And most importantly, I was interested in trying to see how we could maintain the feeling of intimacy.”

Through Alan C. Edwards’ lighting design and splitting the stage into zones, Beard found ways to almost enclose the dancers with the musicians. Besides O’Farrill, this iteration features original compositions and music direction from singer/songwriter Crystal Monee Hall and additional compositions and performances from percussionist Keisel Jimenez and pianist Anibal César Cruz. More dancers were added to the cast, which now includes Jared Alexander, Amanda Castro, Naomi Funaki, Quynn Johnson, Sean Kaminski, and Dre Torres, who is understudying all of the parts but still performs. Funaki will take on what was Casel’s part in the Fred Astaire-and-Ginger Rogers-style duet titled “Inspiration,” set to Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek.” A cameo with choreographer Ronald K. Brown remains but is integrated as a film clip. (Brown suffered a stroke in April 2021 and has yet to return to live performance.)

The Chasing Magic cast during rehearsal on Oct. 24.

Anthony Geathers for Andscape

Casel’s mission is to transform the way audiences view tap dancing and with Chasing Magic, she is making good on her promise, provoking the full range of emotions tap can inspire.

“People sometimes have had a very narrow view of what tap dancing is and what tap dancing can do, though a shift is definitely occurring,” she said. “Most often people think it’s entertaining, which it is, and that it’s fun, which it is, and that it’s joyful, which it also is, right? Those things are true. But, if you only think of the art with that lens, then when you see something that speaks with more depth or has resistance in it, or another kind of message, then you might easily dismiss that.”

She is also aware of the pitfalls of celebrity in the field — the household names such as Astaire, the Nicholas Brothers, Sammy Davis Jr. and Gregory Hines — and the tendency for the industry to get stuck in the style of one individual.

“I wanted to allow the space for all of it and point out that if we look at tap as one thing, we cut off a whole group of artists who are really doing great work and who are showing all of the facets of tap dancing. It’s so expansive and it always has been.”

That tap is having a resurgence in popularity may have something to do with Casel’s star power or her conversational style of tapping. But it may also be due to her impressive reach as an arts leader and curator in several presenting organizations such as the New York City Center, Dance Lab New York, and Manhattan’s Little Island park, and her mentorship of younger artists such as Luke Hickey, Dario Natarelli, and Funaki, who are now choreographing their own shows. When asked about it, Casel credits Mattocks and The Joyce for changing the scarcity paradigm and programming three separate tap artists in one concert dance season — a rare move, indeed, and one that points to the abundance of talent in the field.

Looking ahead to the moment when she is reunited with an audience again, Casel remembered an earlier preshow talk she had with dancers where she shared what she describes as a mantra:

“I said, ‘When we are on that stage, you bring your f—ing star self to the thing. Do not hold back. Do not dim the light. I don’t care whose name is on the marquee, let’s show out.’ ”

Candice Thompson is a writer and dance critic living in Brooklyn.