Nonstop Energy Propels 'Tap Dogs'

Australian musical pushes limits of genre

You might call them "hunks with happy feet."

With ripped jeans and flannel shirts, they look like blue-collar castoffs from a construction site - except that some force that won't be denied has gotten into their work boots.

These six, rough-and-tumble Australian dancers with powerful pectorals and running-back calves have already stormed England, Canada, and their native Sydney. Now they are in the US to show that while some choreographers may have claimed ballet for women, these guys are taking tap as their own.

"What they do is primal. Everyone loves dance, and they do it brilliantly," says Joel Grey, the veteran Broadway performer, who was in the opening-night audience.

Just as the two recent tap-phenomena hits "Stomp" and "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk" have pushed the genre's envelope, the high-octane "Tap Dogs" wants to blast the boundaries even further.

As seen here on the first night of a six-month North American tour, the show explodes like a pneumatic drill. These blokes from Down Under turn on the tap and out comes 75 minutes of socially conscious, macho, scenery-chewing dance.

Aural, visual precision

The stage is a futuristic industrial site set bathed in mist and strobe lights and ensconced in an encyclopedia of rhythmic "surround sound." With no text, but lots of attitude about the trials and tribulations of everyday working folk, it all holds together with an effortless, underlying visual and aural precision worthy of a half-dozen Ann Millers. You might call it Fred Astaire-meets-American Gladiators.

The first 20 minutes rip by on rhythms alone, from the opening takeoff on the Broadway classic "42nd Street" (a corrugated metal screen rises on a line of tapping work boots) to a head-butting tap competition in a boxing ring.

Then, as if there weren't enough pure noise being generated already, musicians bring in everything from hard rock to Latin funk and Asian gamelan as background for the rest of the show.

The men conduct a hip-hop symphony created by soundboards that they activate with their taps. They create a light-and-sound show with simulated arc welders. They navigate moving floorboards, moving ladders, and cleverly shifting scaffolding.

They also tap dance hanging upside down, bouncing a basketball, and finally, using galoshes, through a water fight.

Conceived and choreographed by Australian Dein Perry, "Tap Dogs" debuted to rave reviews in a Sydney music club in 1995, promptly garnered an Olivier Award in London, and moved on to critical praise at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival.

Unfortunately, Wednesday's premire at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater in Westwood got off to a rocky start.

The last-minute need for a new soundboard delayed the show for more than an hour and left a restless audience standing outside. When the audience finally filed in, the company was still doing a sound check, making it hard to know exactly when the onstage fiddling had segued into the show itself.

But once the dancers took over the stage, their sheer drive and joie de vivre overwhelmed any doubts the audience may have had about the company's determination to pummel its way into their hearts and minds. By the thoroughly sweat-and-water drenched finale, there was little doubt it had succeeded.

Dancers' individual styles

What little narrative continuity the evening has comes primarily from the individual personalities of the company, most notably from choreographer Perry, who also dances in his creation. (Perry himself worked as an industrial machinist before going into dance full time. The others in his company, though well-trained as dancers, have various eclectic backgrounds as well.)

Perry's leadership is evident throughout, particularly in a lanky master-protg duet he performs with a younger company member, one that despite its raw power wouldn't be out of place in a Jerome Robbins ballet.

It's also important to note that while the sound and energy levels are frequently staggering, the dancers never lose the surprisingly delicate self-control they flaunt in several precision unison routines, some worthy of any of the old-time musicals this show so thoroughly mocks.

Like the blue-collar world it evokes, this is hard-driving in-your-face dancing, anchored in the tap vocabulary but accessible and powerful enough to reach any audience.

The eclectic score is composed and performed on a variety of instruments by Andrew Wilkie, with the help of musician Jason Yudof. Fellow Aussie, director-designer Nigel Triffitt helped evoke the workaday clutter of urban life.

*After performances in Los Angeles, 'Tap Dogs' will appear in Vancouver, British Columbia, Seattle, Phoenix, San Diego, Denver, Minneapolis, Houston, San Francisco, Washington, Chicago, Phil- adelphia, and Baltimore. The tour ends with a New York show in the spring.

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