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Beefcake dance bonanza taps into rock’s energy

Tap Dogs at Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre, September 27, 1996

The Georgia Straight
Shannon Rupp

Depending on whom you talk to, the recent Tap Dogs show (featuring half a dozen buff and beautiful Australian men) is either injecting life into a moribund art or is just a lame excuse to watch sweaty beefcake. But it might be more accurate to describe the show as rock’n’roll tap, since it has all the charms – and limitations – of the music that inspired it.

The performance is choreographed around a constructions site, which the dancers build themselves as the 75-minute show progresses. They glide on girders, clamber up ladders, and shuffle on scaffolding, using the set with enough ingenuity to do Fred Astaire proud. They even allude to Astaire’s famous dancing-on-a-ceiling scene: one of the dancers (Douglas Mills) is harnessed and hoisted up by his mates so he can dance upside down on the set.

 But any thoughts of Astaire are short-lived because the dancing is heavy-footed, loud, and crude – in short, an entertainment that’s bound to resonate with a mass audience in the ‘90s. With the exception of choreographer Dein Perry and the stylish Ben Read, these dancers have all the finesse of Glen Clark’s spindoctors. But Read is one of those gifted performers who seem to defy gravity: he moves with such fluidity and ease that he makes his stomping colleagues look like gorillas. They’re powerful and impressive but not graceful enough to be interesting for long. (Of course, you can simply sit back and enjoy the sweat-flecked pecs, which I suspect are what inspired opening night’s standing ovation.)

Tap Dogs is at its best in a clever duet for drum and dance. The dancers become the music, literally, by tapping drum-synthesizer pads, creating their own rhythms while dancing to them. Amplification is what makes these hoofers so exciting: because every tap is miked, 12 feet striking the stage sounds like thunder.

There’s a hint of danger about this dance that’s reminiscent of the best rock concerts. Halfway through the show, a numb feeling in my right ear reminded me of a Ramones concert that burst blood vessels and led to temporary deafness and serious pain (while adding a new and strangely appealing element of risk to concert-going).

As a dance form, tap is repetitive and has a limited emotional range, so Perry has spiced it up with a variety of gimmicks. He presents every cliché of guy culture you can imagine, and the tone of the show reminds me of the old joke about how you can tell if an Australian is queer: he prefers women to beer. If we were in any doubt that men view the world as one large urinal, Perry reinforces the idea with the peek-a-the-leak scene. When he introduces the other five dancers they’re screened from the knees up, so we’re forced to focus on their feet. After a series of traditional sight gags, one of them stops, plants his Blundstones in a wide stance, and sends a steady stream of yellow water between his legs.

The audience was delighted. (I was tempted to tell the that they could have enjoyed the same thrill and saved themselves 40 bucks by hanging around the stairways leading to the underground parking, where a man was performing the same trick for free just before the show. But I guess that’s what they mean by the magic of the theatre.)

Water is certainly the dominant motif in Tap Dogs: later the blokes enhance their bad-boy image by dancing on wet scaffolding and splashing the audience. One of the stairs is actually a shallow pan, so those in the front row get soaked as the dancers do their gum-booted version of “Singin’ in the Rain.” But they have none of Gene Kelly’s gallantry: within minutes, they’re actually swinging this pan and flinging the water at the audience (which was supplied with plastic sheets). Although this seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of the people up front, the rest of the theatre went wild (proving that you never go wrong appealing to people’s baser instincts).

Tap Dogs’ worksite setting adds glamour to some otherwise predictable dance. David Murray’s soft pink-and-green lighting captures the Gothic beauty of industrial sites, where dim workplaces are dressed with smoke and steam. Arc welders create fireworks, and in one of the show’s better moments, a goggle-clad Perry dances amidst the shooting wads of sparks.

According to Perry, he intended Tap Dogs to be a kind of homage to masculine culture, but as often as not, it comes off as satire. This show is like the stereotypical man: loud, aggressive, and crude. If he’s lively and handsome (as this show is) he can be amusing – but only in small doses.

 

3 Oct 1996
p. 52