Reviews: “Superheroes in Bare Feet, Sneakers, and Tap Shoes: A Review of Ayodele Casel’s Chasing Magic” by Addie Tsai

Ayodele Casel Film Stills from Kevin Lau (Joyce DBX)

Chasing Magic: Ayodele Casel, filmed by Kurt Csolak and directed by Torya Beard, opens with shots of New York City, briefly focusing on a Twyla Tharp quote painted on the brick exterior of The Joyce Theater: Art is the only way to run away without leaving home, a quote that has new resonance in these times of isolation and lockdown amid the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic. 

Before the performance begins, we see what appears to be moments from a dress rehearsal as Ayodele Casel and her collaborators join together on stage, working out steps dressed in black with matching masks. 

Chasing Magic is structured in individually-titled sections that Casel named after the footage was shot and edited, using the titles of each section to distill the feeling of each section into a single word. 

Gratitude

Casel delicately taps in accompaniment with Ain’t Nobody, played by Annastasia Victory on piano and Senfu Stoney on percussion. The piano tones are tender and intimate, somber but romantic, and Casel’s instincts are generous and attentive, at times matching the melody being tapped out on the keys, at times filling in the spaces between the musical accompaniment with rhythmic trills that create an added layer of percussion that deepens the sound. It isn’t only the sounds themselves that provide that quality. It’s also in Casel’s delivery in the duet—she is soft yet certain, and her tapping starts out softly while facing the pianist, allowing equal attention to both her tapping and the piano. Both performers slowly build in intensity together, and the cinematography thoughtfully provides attention by panning back and forth between the piano and to Casel. As Casel’s movements become more and more infinitesimally small in the song’s decrescendo, it is impossible not to notice Casel’s impressive economy of movement, and control over both her feet as well as her taps. 

Friendship

Casel and Anthony Morigerato walk towards one another on the stage and clasp hands, walking forward together to begin their choreographed duet to a piano rendition of Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon. Casel and Morigerato have worked closely together since 2014, when they were asked to perform a duet during a tap festival in order to condense the show. They choreographed Fly Me to the Moon on a lunch break, and have been friends since, but Morigerato’s version is that he’s known Casel since he was 12 years old, when he took a class of hers in his hometown of Albany, New York. Their duet has a smooth, effortless feeling, fluid in Casel and Morigerato’s movements across the dance floor, with the accentuated movements of rhythm in between slides and extensions. What I appreciated most about this section was the clear harmony that the two dancers shared with one another, and the joy they had to dance together. Even through a clearly choreographed duet such as this one, the two constantly checked in with one another as they moved with ease through the movements. The connection between the two dancers was never lost, even as they transitioned flawlessly between dancing in unison to a few bars of improvisation performed by Casel and then Morigerato. After they each improv more extensively, the two dancers then began to perform an improvisational call and response, dancing around one another, a touching dialogue clearly built off of a long relationship of working and dancing together, closing out the duet in unison. 

Joy

I couldn’t help but smile as each performer—Casel, Morigerato, John Manzari, and Naomi Funaki playfully tap-promenaded across the dance floor one after another, back and forth, before the quartet of performers began to tap across the floor in unison to Arturo O’Farrill’s arrangement of Caravan. O’Farrill’s jazz stylings offer Casel and her collaborators an opportunity to bring a kind of sassiness to their movement and energy, emphatic in their sounds and delivery. Each dancer is given the chance to perform improvisational solos in the center as the other three dancers move behind him, minimally supporting the spotlighted dancer, but also offering a kind of audience within an audience. At one point in the section, they slide on over to O’Farrill, cupping their hands behind their ears, as O’Farrill is offered his own moment to shine for a bar or two. If the duet was a conversation between two people, the movement in and out of unison, improvisational solo, and interacting with one another with their craft, Joy reminds me of how we connect with a group at a disco or a party, fluidly and organically moving in and out of conversation and movement—with ourselves, and with the group. And besides, can we talk about Casel setting the floor on fire in that tux?

Inspiration

We return to the fluid chemistry of Casel and Morigerato in a duet to a piano recording of Cheek to Cheek, but this duet is more energetic and playful, and cleverly works off of a dynamic the audience has already gotten to know with the previous two sections. The camera trusts the audience’s knowledge of the two as well, and we get welcome close-ups of their expressions of joy and enjoyment with one another as they easily glide through sweet tap choreography and moments of improvisational dialogue. There are other affectionate nods of friendship and intimacy as Casel takes Morigerato’s arm at one point, and Morigerato playfully grabs his lapels of his jacket at another point, a nod to the nostalgic association of the song.

Trust

Even though it may seem as though Casel performing individually with a pianist will feel the same as Chasing Magic’s opening number, Trust feels very different. The section opens with a conversation between Casel and O’Farrill about how they each see their work in making art together. Casel states that, “I go wherever you take me. When I think of magical moments, it’s like that complete faith and trust that whatever is gonna be will be. Que sera sera.” O’Farrill responds by comparing each of their artistic worlds to playing in the sandbox: “The sandbox is big, and it’s fun.” Casel later explained to me that “she loves the journey that we’re going on. We never know where we’re going and we’re happy to be on the road.” When they begin to perform, the shot opens wider to include both performers as Casel dances between two smaller dance floors. Unlike Ain’t Nobody, the song played in Gratitude, in Trust it feels as though both performers are creating and riffing off of one another, that Casel and O’Farrill are co-creating the work together. It is hard to describe O’Farrill’s work in this section, as each phrase moves seamlessly in and out of several generic influences, but his aesthetic choices are dramatic, playful, and tenacious, as are Casel’s. Although O’Farrill is dressed in standard concert attire, Casel is dressed in what could be considered her most casual ensemble of the evening, a mustard graphic t-shirt that matches her brown tap shoes, with a leather jacket and black pants, further emphasizing the sense of play. 

Legacy 

This section opens with a wide-angle shot, the stage dimly lit, and three figures on stage, Casel, Funaki, and Amanda Castro, all dressed in black. The mood here is thoughtful, and Legacy opens with a gorgeous medium shot of the three women performers in profile, their faces lit and shown in a diagonal. The shot fades into a gestural wide angle shot of the three women offering paced accompaniment to the melancholy piano, almost sculptural from a distance, only their faces, hands, and shoes illuminated. An eloquent, reflective poem is written between them, underscored by the piano’s lilting tones. It shouldn’t be surprising to see three women of color on stage together, their different stories different but connected in such a poignant trio, and yet, as they slowly decrescendo to move onto the same dance floor before the final shot fades to black, I found myself moved by the unexpected witness of it. This closing shot of three women of color, rhythm tap dancers in an historically male-dominated field, joined together on a tap floor meant for and signifying a largely individual art form, honed in even closer on the representation of solidarity in the arts among women and non-binary movement artists of color.  

Culture

This section opens to percussionist Stoney on drums as Castro pays gratitude to him, one hand lifting folds of her long white skirt to her face as she bows. This is the first section in Chasing Magic to move away from rhythm tap, as Castro performs an electrifying bomba. As Joshua Guerra Sanchez explained in The African roots of Bomba, a traditional Puerto Rican dance and musical genre, “It’s everything. It’s a feeling. It’s courage. It’s respect. [It’s] consciousness. It’s life.” If an audience or spectator of Chasing Magic isn’t familiar with the layered and complex history of rhythm tap, they might wonder about the choice to include Afro-Puerto Rican movement in a show centering tap, but as Constance Valis Hill explains in the introductory chapter to her Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History:

Tap dance, a percussive American dance form distinguished by the interplay of rhythm and amplification of sound by the feet, has been historicized as having a neat tripartite parentage of English, Irish, and African musical and dance traditions. The resulting narrative ignores tap’s more complex intercultural fusions, which occurred through the interaction of Irish indentured servants and enslaved West Africans in the Caribbean during the 1600s. African American folk and Irish American laborers in the southern United States during the 1700s, and African American freemen and Irish American performers in northern urban cities in the 1800s. It was through this three-hundred-year musical and social exchange, with its steady pattern of imitation, assimilation, and the transformation of such percussive step dances as the jig, gioube, buck-and-wing, and juba, that tap dance evolved in America. Although elements of English Clog, Scottish Highland, and early American folk dance blended elements of tap dance, Afro-Irish fusions in particular shaped and “rhythmetized” American tap dance and established and perpetuated such key features as the tap challenge. (2010, 2)

Casel adds further to this connection of culture, legacy, and identity: “Before tap dancing was the drum, was African dance, was tradition. We wanted to honor that. African people were dropped and sadly enslaved all over the Caribbean and in America, so there are a lot of similarities in the expression of the Caribbean people, Latino people, and Black people here just because of our connection to Africa. To me, it makes perfect sense to include Bomba, which is Puerto Rican folkloric dance in this expression. I wanted to connect the footwork, her last moments of the sound of her bare feet in the wood leads the way to how we express ourselves in tap shoes.” One feels the connective tissue between Casel tap dancing on the same wooden floor in their shoes Castro now beats on with her bare feet, particularly powerful considering the thread woven between Legacy, in which the audience witnesses three women of color tap dancing on the same floor, and Culture, two dances born from the same line that travels back to Africa, elevating the bodies and lives of dancers underrepresented in its histories. Castro’s movements are sensuous and powerful set against Stoney’s commanding percussion.

Ancestors 

Ancestors opens with Casel, dressed all in black, dancing to no other musical accompaniment, while Ronald K. Brown, dressed all in white, creates sweeping circular shapes with his body and arms, an aesthetic blending modern, Senegalese, and other West African movement practices. Casel travels across several tap floors with her palms up, as though giving or accepting an offering, before she is gradually joined by Manzari and Funaki. Casel and Brown dance a powerful call and response, supported by Manzari and Funaki’s percussive backing. Slowly Brown dances in the center of the stage, surrounded by the three tap dancers. He connects with the ensemble as a group as well as each dancer individually, the two histories speaking to one another through their hybridized, multi-textual dance. Brown ultimately moves onto his own tap floor in his white sneakers, his movement silent but his body and spirit speaking volumes as he faces Casel, and the two speak. 

The dancers fade into the background as the following white text slowly appears across the screen: We agreed to come together / To discover // What we want to share / About us // Our father and mothers / Brothers and sisters // Giving each other the / Phrase for life // Love / Peace / And delight,” attributed to Meeting Place, by Ronald K. Brown.

Magic

Magic, which closes Chasing Magic, opens with Stoney beating on drums, as Crystall Monee Hall sings soulful vocals to the title song interspersed with each of the dancers moving through a few bars of the song as the audience learns their individual names, and we see the dancers pose and laugh and embrace one another, and the musicians as well. The final number is a short ensemble performance of Casel and her tap collaborators dancing in unison together, uplifting the community she has built and honored, through tap, culture, identity, and legacy. Casel offers a final affirmation for Chasing Magic, white text on a black background: “This is dedicated to all the artists / who have been dancing in basements, / corners of a room, garages, / on rooftops, 2×4 and 4×4 pieces of wood. / We are superheroes. / Pa’lante! Tap is magic.”

Chasing Magic is aptly named, as when you finish watching this triumphant work, you feel spellbound, by Casel’s infectious joy and connection with her fellow collaborators, dancers and musicians alike. Chasing Magic is as close to a flawless piece of art as one can get, impressive in times where performing artists and dancers are struggling to get work to isolated audiences more than ever before. Casel’s praise of her fellow dancers could be said about her own stunning movement, musicality, and spirit, as well as of Chasing Magic itself: “One of the beautiful things about tap dancing is that it is such an individual art form. We spend thousands of hours honoring our own rhythmic voice, that is one of the things that makes tap dancing so special. Who the people are is what gives life to the form. They all added a beautiful and unique sensibility. They are generous, they dance with power, they dance with love, they dance with curiosity, they dance with focus.” One thing is for sure, that Casel’s spells will only soar higher, and I will always come along for the ride.

Check out the next season of performances at The Joyce: https://www.joyce.org. Please consider ways to support The Joyce Theater Foundation, a non-profit organization: https://www.joyce.org/support

The American Repertory Theatre will be sharing Chasing Magic Live in September. More details here.

About Addie Tsai

Addie Tsai (she/they) is a queer nonbinary artist and writer of color. They collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel, among others. Addie holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and a PhD in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. She is the author of the queer Asian young adult novel Dear Twin, which made the 2021 Rainbow Book List, and received press in Autostraddle, Bustle, Barnes & Noble Teen Blog, the Montreal Review of Books, Lambda Literary Review, OutSmart Magazine, Shondaland, and others. Addie’s writing has been published in Foglifter, VIDA Lit, the Texas Review, Banango Street, The Offing, Room Magazine, The Collagist, The Feminist Wire, Nat. Brut., and elsewhere. They are the Fiction Co-Editor at Anomaly, Staff Writer at Spectrum South, and Founding Editor & Editor in Chief at just femme & dandy.