CAMBRIDGE — It starts with a bang. To the recorded strains of “Scalular,” by Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, five tappers in trenchcoats and T-shirts bearing their first initials pound out an insinuating rhythm. They shift position, slide past one another on ramps and platforms as if saying hello; they appear to be dancing in unison even when they’re not. For the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, live performance is back at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center.
The show is “Ayodele Casel: Chasing Magic,” but Casel, now 46, has spent her tap-dancing career not just chasing magic but creating it and sharing it. Born in the Bronx, the daughter of a Black father and a Puerto Rican mother, she was the first woman to join Savion Glover’s Not Your Ordinary Tappers. She’s gone on to become the face of tap; this summer the USPS honored her by putting her on a Forever postage stamp.
“Chasing Magic” was originally set to be a concert at Joe’s Pub in New York in March 2020. COVID-19 put an end to that idea. Then it became part of the Joyce Theater’s 2020–21 virtual season, a film that was shot on the Joyce stage this past March and offered over three weeks in April.
Now the show, directed by Casel’s wife, Torya Beard, is making its debut as a 70-minute live event (no intermission). Like the film, the show proceeds in chapters. “Gratitude” finds Casel doing an “improvography” with the musicians: pianist Anibal Cesar Cruz, singer Crystal Monee Hall, percussionist Keisel Jiménez. It’s a contained kind of tap; the energy is all in the feet. She introduces Hall, who leads the audience in a sing-along number called “Love Song,” concluding, “We’re ready to take this on the road!”
“Friendship” has Casel duetting with Anthony Morigerato on “Fly Me to the Moon.” They trade casual, good-natured ideas; she’s light, he’s grounded, and yet with his flamboyant spins, he’s the one who’ll get them airborne. “Joy” is a quartet for Casel, Morigerato, John Manzari, and Kurt Csolak; set to O’Farrill’s recording of “Caravan,” it’s so rhythmically infectious, you might be tempted to get up and join them. “Inspiration” pays tribute to Casel’s love of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, as she and Morigerato duet on “Cheek to Cheek.”
“The Sandbox” is an “improvisation” between Casel and O’Farrill at the piano. “I have no idea where he’s going to go,” she says, “and that’s OK.” File this one under “Trust.” O’Farrill goes just about everywhere, now teasing, now intense, changing up the rhythm, and Casel stays right with him. “Legacy” starts with Hall singing “I Will Speak Your Name,” and that segues into a lilting triple-time sisterhood number for Casel, Naomi Funaki, and Amanda Castro. After a solo from Jiménez, we move to “Culture,” where, for “Bomba II,” a barefoot Castro in a swirling white skirt seems almost possessed as she dances up a storm. That leads to “Ancestors,” where in “Meeting Place: Draft II,” to no music but the tapping, Castro’s movement is integrated with that of Casel, Morigerato, Manzari, Csolak, and (via video) Ronald K. Brown. Connecting tap with the form’s African-American roots, it’s the highlight of “Chasing Magic.”
After another solo from Jiménez, the show winds down with “The Magic,” in which O’Farrill returns to the piano and the performers are reintroduced and there’s an informal free-for-all. This is an intimate, communal affair. At times I wished the dancing were more expansive, but there’s no gainsaying the performers’ phenomenal stamina and virtuosity — or their joy. “Deep down inside of you,” Casel has said, “is a tap dancer waiting to be born.” If you didn’t feel that way going in to “Chasing Magic,” you might well by the time you leave.
AYODELE CASEL: Chasing Magic
Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through Oct. 9. Tickets $25-$70. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.