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From left: Jared Alexander, Ayodele Casel, Amanda Castro, Naomi Funaki in “Chasing Magic” at the Joyce Theater. Photograph by Tony Turner

That Elusive Magic

Ayodele Casel's “Chasing Magic” live at the Joyce Theater

Performance
“Chasing Magic” by Ayodele Casel
Place
The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, November 4, 2022
Words
Marina Harss

We all know the sensation that comes once in a while during a performance, when something extraordinary happens onstage, time stops, and the audience and performers seem to co-exist within the same thrilling, elevated bubble. That magic only happens in live performance. But during the pandemic, one dance for online consumption, came close, and that was Ayodele Casel’s tap evening “Chasing Magic.”

A year and a half later, “Chasing Magic” has finally come to the stage. The cast of seven dancers and four musicians has changed somewhat, and the program has broadened. The stage is more elaborately set up, with four platforms at different levels. But Casel’s generous and irrepressibly joyous presence, and her free-form, fresh, spontaneous-feeling choreography have remained, as have many of the program’s musical numbers.

Arturo OFarrill and Ayodele Casel in “The Sandbox.” Video still from Ayodele Casel’s Chasing Magic, film by Kurt Csolak

Casel’s own approach to tap remains as free and expansive as ever. As she dances, her nose curls with pleasure and she leans in, as if listening to the music of the band, and of her own feet in relation to the notes and rhythm emerging from the instruments. When she dances with others, she watches and listens with the same pleasure and attention. When she joins in conversation with one of the musicians, as she does in “The Sandbox,” an improvisation with the pianist Anibal César Cruz (on other nights it is Arturo O’Farrill, leader of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra) their repartee is brilliant, friendly, funny, and deeply intelligent, and utterly lacking in competition. She opens with a beat—he answers he by subdividing it. He plays staccato chords—she skips along to them. Her steps echo and elaborate on the melodies that emerge from his fingers, as if embroidering lace with her feet. The complexity of the taps is dizzying.

Another wonderful aspect of Casel’s dancing is its dynamic range; she can dance pianissimo, she can open up to a big, rich sound. Her dancing has a flow and musicality. So too, that of her collaborators, which here included the lanky and affable Jared Alexander, refined and ebullient Amanda Castro, witty Naomi Funaki, Quynn Johnson, Sean Kaminski, and light-stepping Dre Torres.

Ayodele Casel and Anthony Morigerato in “Fly Me To The Moon.” Still from Ayodele Casel’s Chasing Magic, filmed by Kurt Csolak

Much of the dancing is about friendship and the joy of dancing together—particularly a duet for Casel and Jared Alexander, set to “Fly Me to the Moon,” originally created with the dancer Anthony Morigerato, who was in the filmed version of “Chasing Magic” but does not appear in the live one. Alexander is like a goofy Fred Astaire; he radiates ease and moves through space with a gliding grace. He and Casel riff off of each other, picking up where the other leaves off, finishing each other’s sentences. Another duet, for Naomi Funaki and Sean Kaminsky, doesn’t have quite the same spark.

The band—Aníbal César Cruz on the piano, Keisel Jiménez on percussion, the vocalist Crystal Monee Hall—is so good that it is a shame it isn’t given more to do. At least half of the show is set to recorded music. (Other evenings have also featured O’Farrill.) Why not take advantage of these wonderful players? Every time they return, the temperature rises.

Anthony Morigerato, John Manzari, Ayodele Casel, and Naomi Funaki in “Caravan.” Still from Ayodele Casel’s Chasing Magic, filmed by Kurt Csolak

The other issue is with pacing. The original “Chasing Magic” felt compact and urgent, like a rejection of the stasis and torpor of the pandemic; the stage show, paradoxically, has lost some of that electricity. There is too much talking. Casel explains that her name, Ayodele, means “joy comes home” in Yoruba. She explains the origins of the show. She talks about her childhood fascination with Ginger Rogers and her later realization of tap’s African origins. It’s all part of her generosity of spirit, but so much of what she says doesn’t need to be said—it’s evident in the dancing. Her desire to be democratic, introducing each of the dancers and musicians, also drags down what could be a much tauter ending.

Casel should trust her material more. The magic is right there, just out of reach. It lies in the talent of the performers, and in the skill, sophistication, and sincerity of their interactions. “Chasing Magic” comes frustratingly close to tapping into that glorious flow, but in the end, it slips away.