By Debra Cash
Energizing, joyful, expert, close to sure-fire, Chasing Magic was a great choice to reopen A.R.T. after the long pandemic shutdown.
Chasing Magic, Created by Ayodele Casel, directed by Torya Beard, with original compositions and musical direction by Crystal Monee Hall. At American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, through October 9.
The happy hubbub of real, live people only occasionally distinguishable behind their free I [heart] a.r.t. masks last night at the opening of tap dancer Ayodele Casel’s Chasing Magic moved more than one audience member to tears — even before the house lights went down. Energizing, joyful, expert, close to sure-fire, Chasing Magic was a great choice to reopen A.R.T. after the long pandemic shutdown.
Interestingly enough, this show — which does not address the pandemic in any explicit way — is indirectly a pandemic product. Taped last March at the Joyce Theatre in New York without an audience, the original video version of Chasing Magic served as a virtual out-of-town tryout. Does the energy of a live audience help the dancers and musicians? From the stage, they told us that it does. Does being live help the audience? Hell, yes.
Chasing Magic opens on a noir note. The dancers, tapping along what seems a jumble of intersecting planes and ramps, wear beige trench coats and hit an urban rhythm something like the clatter of a subway car coming into a station. These are New Yorkers, y’all: hopping between platforms with an occasional open-legged flourish, they’ve been cramped long enough. They’re ready to move.
Casel, a slight figure of Black and Puerto Rican heritage who wears her hair in a topknot above a braid that flows down her back, begins her first solo. Accompanied by deft pianist Anibal Cesar Cruz, she strolls across the stage in her light-catching metallic shoes, a rainstick trembling against the piano’s delicate treble notes. There’s running water in her footwork. It’s a style that recurs throughout the evening, as if Casel keeps her motor idling.
Over the course of Chasing Magic, she’ll duet with dancer Anthony Morigerato in a rhumba version of “Fly Me to the Moon,” his light, suspended technique and corkscrew turns making the point that you don’t have to be identical in race, gender, or style to be friends; play a few follow-the-leader games and find lots of nicely timed pauses and contrasts with “the guys” — Anthony Morigerato and Kurt Csolak; and dance a sober trio that is almost severe in its unison precision with Amanda Castro and Naomi Funaki — a lively young dancer I recognized from Caleb Teicher’s “Moses Supposes” video and would liked to have seen more of.
The show’s direction, by Torya Beard, is tight. The balanced sound mix by Alex Giorgetti lets the tapper’s shoes be heard as musical instruments. There’s even a sweet sing-along led by Crystal Monee Hall where, after so many months dealing with digital signal asynchrony, we get to hear each other’s voices in real time singing the repeated word love/love/love.
But there’s no question that the most powerful magic of Chasing Magic is made by the combination of Casel and jazz great Arturo O’Farrill. If you catch the show any other night of the A.R.T. run, you’ll see a different performance than I did: this improvography (as tap folks call it, in memory of Gregory Hines) throws Casel into the deep end to “thrive in the chaos” of O’Farrill’s Latin jazz. This section of the show is called “Trust” and trust is nonnegotiable. It may be straightforward for Casel to match the piano’s bass notes with dropped heels, but as O’Farrill’s playing starts to cascade like a player piano escaping its sprockets, he almost dares Casel to keep up. Mostly, she does.
Ayodele Casel has been much concerned with exploring her presence within the tap world and the gifts of tap’s multiracial legacy: the work she created while a 2019-2020 Radcliffe Fellow, Diary of a Tap Dancer, explored the achievements of the female tap dancers who came before her, not all of whom are as famous as they deserve to be. I was glad she gave a shout out to Dianne Walker, who happened to be in the house.
The closing section of Chasing Magic involves Castro, representing Afro-Caribbean culture, wearing a billowing white bomba skirt and working herself toward a trance-like frenzy while tap dancers circle her like acolytes in a Martha Graham tableau. That didn’t work for me.
Yet just beyond that too-literal frame was a hint of next steps.
Projected behind the dancers, larger than life, was a brief loop of choreographer Ronald K. Brown moving with his signature liquidity, gesturing as if calling from the homeland. Also projected were stanzas of his poem “Meeting Place.” Brown, born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, has been able to draw deeply from a traditional West African movement vocabulary to create works that speak of his own contemporary spiritual search. Casel may feel his work can support her journey as she chases tap’s magic.
Debra Cash, a founding contributor to the Arts Fuse now serving on its Board, is Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance.