Tap Dogs

at the Shubert Theatre,

through January 26

Of This Empty Place

at Link’s Hall, January 17-19

By Terry Brennan

When you analyze art, you often find a rich system of symbols and ideas that’s as satisfying as the work’s surface. But when you analyze entertainment it often just falls apart; instead of ideas you get commercial motivations, manipulations, and unconscious ideology.

I was afraid that Tap Dogs would defeat analysis because it seems to be predeconstructed. Its concept has the simplicity of all good advertising: Tap Dogs is a rock-and-roll version of tap dancing, Australians in heavy work boots pounding out heavy grooves. The premise promises broad appeal by combining nostalgia for the days of Gene Kelly with an updated sound. It capitalizes on the renewed interest in tap dancing sparked by Stomp, Columbia College’s tap festival, the Human Rhythm Project, and Broadway’s Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk. Tap Dogs looked to be a great commercial success but threatened to be just a pale copy of these others.

But the show stood up under analysis: it creates a satisfying system of symbols and ideas that spring from deeply held values. It delivers.

The introduction establishes Tap Dogs’ goals. After the stage goes dark, a spotlight comes up on a pair of boots with taps attached pounding out an intricate 4/4 rhythm on a miked stage. The spotlight widens to show the dancer, dressed in a plaid flannel shirt, jeans, and a T-shirt. He starts to spin and kicks the sheet of corrugated iron behind him. When he steps aside, the sheet of iron rises to show other booted feet–only the feet and calves, no more. Feet appear and disappear as the dancers seem to leap up and down from a ledge behind the metal sheet. Two blue-jeaned legs tap, then suddenly go to opposite sides of this mini stage, as if the dancer had been pulled in half: a corny trick created by two dancers, each on one leg. Five pairs of feet appear and start a routine, then one pair stops moving and we see a thick stream of yellow water splash down onto the stage as the other dancers grumble and jostle him. We know we’re going to get good crude fun with lots of spectacle, inventive staging, and straight-ahead tapping.

The personalities of the six dancers emerge quickly. The first man to appear is the Leader, and everyone obeys him. He’s usually a peacemaker, but he’s not above taking a cigarette from someone else’s mouth. Gorgeous has a good body and dreadlocks; he keeps throwing disco moves into his tap routines. Macho Man is also well built but not as handsome as Gorgeous. Mr. Green wears a green plaid shirt; he’s a little diffident but turns out to be the most artistic dancer, willing to experiment with rhythms. I began to think of him as the Artist. Little Man is a short, happy-go-lucky guy always playing jokes. The Red-Headed Kid has to work the hardest, putting on a harness to be lifted 20 feet in the air so he can tap-dance upside down.

The Tap Dogs are always playing Top Dog, pushing each other around in various ways. Macho Man is the worst, almost getting into fights with everyone but the Leader. Little Man shrugs off aggression, turning it into a joke. The Artist turns sulky and tries to get even. The Red-Headed Kid just takes it. Gorgeous is razzed but generally no one directs aggression toward him. The six dancers are clearly a set of mates, bound together as much by anger as by any other feeling.

Macho Man becomes increasingly aggressive, eventually hitting Gorgeous during a routine in which the dancers create music by dancing on drum-machine pads on the floor. I expected Macho Man to go out of control and hit the Leader, but something else happened instead: the Tap Dogs’ tricks got increasingly difficult and spectacular. They lift sections of the floor, creating six ramps at different angles, then dance on them. They pull the ramps vertical, then dance on the rungs of the ladders attached to the ramps’ undersides. They use metal grinders to create showers of sparks on a darkened stage. The Leader dons goggles and dances in the midst of the sparks; the sound of the grinders becomes part of the rhythm. The Leader straps microphones to his ankles, the sound of his taps is sent through a reverb unit, and he taps to the rhythms it establishes. In these increasingly astonishing routines the dancers work hard together; they don’t have time for friction. And by the end of the performance they’ve been molded into a team: Macho Man just laughs it off when the Artist cuts into his curtain-call solo. As long as the Artist works hard Macho Man doesn’t care that the Artist doesn’t really fit into the group.

It seems these men love and value their work. Coming from the steel town of Newcastle, Tap Dogs creator and choreographer Dein Perry once worked as an industrial machinist, in an environment that requires not competition but cooperation: one mistake can easily lead to accidental death. Like a combat infantry squad, these mates depend on one another for their lives, and if they’re aggressive it’s to test whether the other person will be there when needed. After all the visceral kinetic excitement of Tap Dogs is over, what’s left belongs to the deep story and its underlying values.

At the other end of the commercial spectrum is a self-financed concert called “Of This Empty Place” by five recent graduates of Columbia College. Some of these choreographers display a promising wit or intelligence, but other pieces never seem to take off.

Atalee Judy in her quirky, funny solo Undertow impersonates a girl swimmer, a brassy blond famous for her literally one-note performances, and a matron who finds the blond’s suicide note. The dance is imaginative, but its rather skimpy movement doesn’t adequately exploit Judy’s strong body. Liz Deatherage’s Look at Me is full of movement–and it tells a good joke: a male dancer (Brock Clawson) can’t get away from the three women dancing with him. They vie for his attention with smoldering looks as Clawson clutches at his trousers in embarrassment. Julie Hopkins’s well-realized solo Sewn States consists of tiny, jerky movements that suggest a desperate fear of the world around her.

A video of distorted images of toys and a ticking metronome dominates Jennifer Smith’s V2-C. The dance’s tone is rather cold, and the movement never catches fire. Noreen Paholak’s choreography in A Woman’s Confession lifts off only during a section set to Steve Reich’s Different Trains. A nice image of a man and woman exchanging clothes doesn’t clarify the murky story.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tap Dogs photo by Polly Borland.