Within the four walls of the Joyce Theater, magic has been brewing. We, the public, only get to see it in virtual form, but the magic is real. The creator of spells is the tap dancer and choreographer Ayodele Casel, whose collaboration with the Latin jazz band-leader Arturo O’Farrill at the Joyce two years ago was one of the bright spots in the city’s cultural life. It too, produced wave upon wave of spontaneous joy, a quality that abounds in her new creation, Chasing Magic. I can only hope that the show will return once the theater has reopened.
Chasing Magic, available on demand through April 21, has the distinction of being a pre-recorded dance that feels as if it were unfolding in real time, before your eyes. Nothing seems canned, or overly planned. This is mainly down to Casel, whose every move and facial expression vibrates with infectious joy, and who clearly revels in the sensations – mental and physical – of dance, as well as in the art of collaboration. Her eyes flash, her nose wrinkles with enthusiasm for what is happening all around her. The show, divided into sections with titles like “gratitude,” “joy,” “trust,” and “friendship,” is like a family reunion, a luminous moment of creativity, artistic exchange, and fun.
Her collaborators here are the jazz pianist and composer Annastasia Victory, O’Farrill, the percussionist Senfu Stoney, the choreographer (and dancer) Ronald K. Brown, the singer Crystal Monee Hall, and four other tap dancers, with whom she shares the stage – Anthony Morigerato, Naomi Funaki, Amanda Castro, and John Manzari. Their interactions are like lively conversations. They complete each other’s sentences, revel in each other’s skill. At the end of a duet with Anthony Morigerato, set to a piano rendition of “Fly me to the Moon,” the microphone captures the sound of laugher, as if they had been surprised at just how much fun they were having. The film-maker (and tap dancer) Kurt Csolak manages to make the stage space feel both intimate and tactile. His camera roves around, capturing the dancers and musicians from all sides, getting close without being intrusive.
Casel’s two duets with Morigerato, both set to American standards (the other is set to “I’m in Heaven”) are particular highlights. The two are co-conspirators: she’s light and free, with a beautiful, subtle sound; he’s more internal and contained (and a great turner). There’s no division by gender, no romance, and no competition, just dance. But all the dancers have their moments, in solos, and also in the ensembles, in which their individuality nevertheless rings through. Funaki’s precision; Manzari’s wild legs and slides; Castro’s through-the-body impulse. Casel and the director of the show, Torya Beard, emphasize this egalitarian, intimate dynamic – the image of the circle returns again and again. And the circle, too, is magical. At one point, the choreographer Ronald K. Brown appears, dancing in sneakers, and he too is absorbed into the circle with ease and grace. His dance style – African-and-club-dance-infused, doesn’t really mesh with the others, but the general air of generosity and openness makes it work, almost.
Some of the dancing is more choreographed, and some is looser. The show’s most improvisatory moments are those between Casel and O’Farrell. Before the dance begins, the two exchange a few words. Her final comment, “faith and trust, whatever will be will be,” pretty much says it all. Again and again they toss ideas at each other, catch them, play with them, toss them back. She watches his every move, he watches hers. You never know what will happen next, nor, it seems, do they. You can’t fake that kind of spontaneity.
But to capture it in a dance film is something even more unusual. What Casel has bottled here is a bit of dance heaven.