September 01, 1996

Boots and All

Tap Dogs
Her Majesty’s

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

From the moment it premiered at the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf in January last year Tap Dogs has been a thumping success -as Adelaide testified when we saw them in the Space only a month later. National and international tours followed, including headline performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Currently there are two companies performing, one in the UK the other on extended tour from Perth to Lismore and all watering holes in between.

On return to Adelaide Tap Dogs immediately sold out their season in the Space and opened an extra week of capacity houses at Her Majesty’s. And this has been the story in every town and city, with audiences eager for the energy and style the show so enthusiastically provides. Devised by Dein Perry, former lead hoofer from Hot Shoe Shuffle, Tap Dogs takes the already evident eroticism of male tapdancing and turns it into rock and roll. Gene Kelly did something similar to Fred Astaire but Perry and designer and director Nigel Triffitt have steepened the curve. There are some debts to Luke Cresswell’s Stomp and the DV8 company but Tap Dogs are absolutely Australian originals.

There are no traces of the old vaudeville about Tap Dogs. From the foyer music -featuring Hunters and Collectors- to the studied grunge of the performers the ambiance is that of a rock concert. And just as Aussie rock is redeemed by laconic self-irony so the Manpower narcissism of this show is offset by a boyish charm and some cracklingly good electronic effects.

Led by Sheldon Perry, brother of Dein, Tap Dogs current show is stronger and livelier than ever. Triffitt’s set consists of a vertical backdrop of rusted corrugated iron, a mezzanine for the two musicians, and a series of catwalks -make that dogwalks- for the performers. With a dozen or more mikes set up along the front of the stage alone, every surface is wired for percussive sound. Sheldon stands centre stage, making desultory steps towards a rhythm. His boot hits the metal platform and richochets through the bank of speakers. It is like a power chord on a fender, or a drummer setting up a pulse that will run for two hours.

This is literally the body electric. The kind of excitement that tap has always generated is accelerated, amplified and merged with current rock idiom. From Perry’s opening solo to the sight gags with dancing feet beneath the corrugated screen, Tap Dogs exudes an easy confidence as the troupe goes through its paces, solo after solo, each successively introducing a new riff, a flashier turn, more gaudy display. Dressed in jeans, t-shirts, flannel shirts, and the ubiquitous Blundstones, the Tap Dogs provide variations on the grunge theme. Some look like farmhands, others like skateboard freaks or thrash musicians. The heftier ones shove aside the runts in fits of sibling irritation then Sheldon snaps his fingers reminding everybody who is top dog. It is smart stuff. Not complex and questioning like Lloyd Newson’s masculinist commentary in DV8 but affirmative and funny and exuberant all the same.

Various Triffitt gizmos are unfolded for virtuoso display. A ramp separates into two jagged chunks as the dancers leap like skaters, rapping and stomping as they move, each beat etched in electricity.
For a quieter moment Sheldon Perry sits on a chair and starts to tap out a pattern while second dogstar Garon Michalitsis picks up a syncopating counter rhythm augmented by percussion and chimes from musicians Peter Neville and Steve Falk. Perry impersonates a lawnmower if you could imagine such a thing. Shane Preston weaves some magic with a basketball, Paul Davis tapdances upside down on a rack and the whole squad makes like a steam train with some stylish backlighting from David Murray.

A row of foot pads linked to synthesised sounds- cymbal, snare drum, bass lines and other whoops and whistles – provides a nimble vehicle for some of the most intricate foot and group work. Musically infectious and visually witty it is a memorable sight. As is the image of Sheldon Perry, wired at the ankles, sending out ripples of time-phased sound while two sets of angle-grinders spray showers of sparks across the stage. For a bit of audience participation the Tap Dogs start kicking about in puddles of water while the front rows cower under plastic sheeting thoughtfully provided by management.

Tap Dogs is a great example of pop dance theatre. That it is a touring cash earner for the STC is nice to hear. That it is such a shrewdly conceived and polished show is a delight. The technical production is excellent and the dancers perform with flair and athleticism. As with all new ideas, Triffitt’s design and Perry’s concept seem deceptively simple, even obvious. But Tap Dogs is a cross-breed we haven’t seen before -and a very likeable mongrel it has turned out to be.

The Adelaide Review, September, 1996.

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