In an ever-evolving dance world, choreographers face the endless pressure of providing innovative new content to surprise and impress viewers. Expectations grow increasingly high, and without taking risks, there really is no reward. For a work to be on the touring stage for as long as Tap Dogs, clearly, they must be doing something right.
Over 23 years after the show’s premier at the Starfish Club, Sydney Theatre Company, in 1995, Tap Dogs certainly shows no sign of growing tired. Performing live to over 12 million people across six continents, and brightening over 330 cities with its unforgettable repertoire, the work remains a sell-out must-see.
Dein Perry; creator, director, choreographer and original cast member, has seen his work receive 15 international awards, including an Olivier Award (UK), an Obie Award (New York) and a Pegasus Award (Spoleto Festival, Italy). It is a worldwide wonder, and with good reason.
As the auditorium lights fade, the hardy, tap plated, Blundstone boots worn by Anthony J Russo (the ‘Foreman’), penetrate the silence as he strolls across the stage. He begins a flawless tap solo, and the tempo of his intricate footwork continues to build ferociously. Yet still, each moment of connection between the metal plate and the floor can be heard in immaculate detail.
I find my heart rate accelerating with the pace of the sequence. From the first scene I am already captivated.
As the other cast members are introduced, the atmosphere of the piece is unveiled. Tap Dogs is a feel-good show, but not necessarily in the way you may expect from a tap work.
This raw, powerful performance is overflowing with exceptional tap technique, and out-of-the-box creativity, in a rugged industrial environment. But what we also see, is the connection between a group of working men, having fun and letting loose.
Despite the undoubtedly rigorous tap training and technical rehearsals the dancers will have undergone, on stage, they are a group of men who don’t take life too seriously. Their comical relationships provide an authentic humour, without appearing forced.
For me, it is these relationships between friends and well-established characters that brings the show to life. Each has an independent personality, with unique characteristics. Together they have a great time; they mock, they laugh, they play, they work, and they dance. When the cast are having fun, so are we!
This carefree attitude is enhanced by the meticulous rehearsal of the cast. Like the well-known metaphor of a duck on water – paddling furiously, but calm above the surface; the dancers are able to achieve a relaxed upper body and expression, as their feet move quicker than the speed of sound.
The work is brimming with risks in the choreography, set, and composition, none of which threaten the success of the fast-footed flock, but only enhance it. They make the almost impossible appear easy. I can only commend the crew for the most thoroughly rehearsed work I have seen in a long time.
The high-voltage performance brings a new dimension to the tap world. Not only are the performers outstanding tap dancers, they also have to master the skills of musicians, sports players, architects, and industrial engineers in this physically, technically, and musically challenging masterpiece. If you are someone who doubts the multitasking ability of men, you may stand corrected after this performance.
The iconic basketball scene, for example, showcases an abundance of complex rhythms through fancy footwork, daring dribbling, and perplexing passes. Texture is added to the various rhythms, as the pulse is provided by the pounding of the basketball into the ground, producing a different sound quality to the metallic tap boots.
This section consists of bold and risky choreography and any mistake would be unavoidably obvious, both visibly and audibly. Yet, again, the dancers don’t miss a beat – even as the basketball skills become increasingly technical, and tapping rhythms impressively complex (with the likes of syncopation, and individual rhythms performed simultaneously).
This gamble has a high pay off, so well-rehearsed its accurate execution has an awestriking effect. The cast become their own sporting orchestra, made up of boots, basketballs, and sheer talent.
The energy of the six talented men throughout the piece is irrepressible. Just when you think there is nothing more for them to give, they accomplish something even more impressive than what has already preceded it.
Moments of calm, and sometimes even tenderness in solos or duets, enhance the fluidity and fulness of the work, providing a necessary break for both performer and viewer; before the cast come back stronger, and with even more energy, as the sweat visibly flies off their bodies. This cast is certainly not afraid of hard work!
A stand-out element of the work has to be the visual set, which gradually transforms throughout the duration. From a simple stage at the beginning, with only one raised square platform in the centre, structures unfold, seemingly from nowhere; upwards, outwards, inwards and downwards.
The set that resembles the scenery of an industrial site becomes part of the dancer’s movement. It is not just there for visual affect, to be ignored and untouched, but to build upon creative ideas and explore new movement that can be enhanced by such structures.
Even the method of each transition was creatively inspired. The show does not stop whilst the set is changed, rather the dancers find new ways to keep momentum as the stage evolves into something new.
The workmen cleverly explore the physical setting and levels of the structure, as well as utilising the different materials on stage to form complex rhythms with varying tones. The creative vision of the work as a whole is pure genius, captivating and exciting.
The friendship of the six rugged men is encapsulated at the end of the work in a moment which is strangely both heart-warming, and ruggedly masculine. The ‘lads’ each partake in a can of fosters, like a group of working men at the end of a long day. The cast toast to each other, and to their viewers, with a can of beer from their home country, Australia. Perry, good call.
Dein Perry is well aware that the show cannot rest on its laurels. Despite the extraordinary success of the work in the past, something new and innovative must be found in the material during the rehearsal process if the work is to continue to flourish.
It is clear the Perry and his exceptional cast are not afraid to take a risk. Sufficient rehearsal time is allowed to find new heights, and ensure the risk will pay off, in an outstanding display of showmanship and exceptional technique. The company work extremely hard to ensure the work is continually improving, to excite and ‘wow’ audiences around the globe.
Leaving with my feet tapping, and my heart pumping, I feel inspired and awestruck by the energy thrown into the past 80 minutes by this group of men. Tap Dogs will be showing at The Peacock Theatre, London, from 23rd October – 10th November 2018.