Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Dog Days

By Elizabeth Lemond

JANUARY 20, 1998:  This weekend, The Orpheum will be turned into a construction site once again. But this time the scaffolding will serve as a backdrop for tap-dancing innovation – not historical renovations.

Created by the Olivier Award-winning Australian choreographer Dein Perry, Tap Dogs takes six hunky male dancers out of spandex and sequins and puts them into jeans and flannels amid the industrial locale of a construction set, complete with clanking metal, power tools, and, oh yeah, big Aussie work boots with taps. The machismo is enough to make even Michael Flatley blush.

According to Brian Burke, the 20-year-old dance captain of the American touring company of Tap Dogs, the show gets the audience members almost as sweaty as the cast.

“The audience reaction is crazy. People get crazy when they see this show. In about the first five minutes, you’ve laughed five or six times, like huge roaring laughter. People have applauded five or six times, so that gets the audience going straight from the start,” says Burke.

“I think it’s because the show is so high-energy. It’s something like they’ve never seen before and it just gets them riled up. We’ve had people talk to us and yell things to us,” he adds. “People have even climbed up onstage with us before.”

As other trendy dance corps like Riverdance and STOMP sweep the nation, now seems a better time than ever for a show like Tap Dogs to gain a serious following. However, the differences in the shows are as salient as their similarities.

“There’s maybe one [similarity],” allows Burke. “It’s that we have audience participation.” And he draws the line there. “We’re tap dancers and it’s a construction set and we’re building the set as we go, and we have musicians,” he says. “STOMP is all percussive. It’s just entirely different.

“I think it’s compared [to STOMP] because they’re both such new and innovative shows that people have never seen before,” Burke continues. “So they have to say, ‘Oh, it’s like Riverdance; it’s like STOMP,’ so that people have something to put it in the realm of. It’s like if you’re going to see Phantom of the Opera and you say, ‘Oh it’s like Joseph’ or ‘It’s like Sunset Boulevard.’ Really, they’re all so different.”

Perry and most of the original members of Tap Dogs grew up tapping at a local school in Newcastle, Australia. Though he and his companions found their ways into various trades and industry, Perry never gave up his passion for dance. After leaving his union to find early success in Broadway-style musical touring companies, Perry collaborated with theatrical designer Nigel Triffit, composer Andre Wilkie, and his old schoolmates to produce the Obie Award-winning Tap Dogs, a show that now boasts four touring companies on three continents. His creation represents a powerful fusion of two worlds Perry knows well: the world of heavy equipment and the world of tap dancing.

Tap Dogs made its North American debut in Montreal in 1996 and opened in New York in March 1997. It was there that Brian Burke and other members of the New York dance scene were exposed to Tap Dogs for the first time.

“I auditioned for Tap Dogs when it first got to New York and not many people in New York knew what it was because it had just gotten there,” says Burke. “They gave me a ticket to see the show because I got kept at the audition. I was sitting around all these people who were auditioning for the show; they had given out all these tickets because they wanted everyone to see the show they were auditioning for.

“My mind was so blown away when I saw the show. I was just like, ‘What am I doing even trying to audition for this show?’ Because it was so amazing; my mouth was open the entire time. ‘What am I even thinking that I could even get a call back for this show? It’s one of the best shows I have ever seen.’”

Tap Dogs is packed with originality and energy. While the first 20 minutes of the show is performed without music, the remainder of the show features a host of musical offerings to complement the dancers – including a Latin number and a heavy-metal number. According to Burke, an entire day’s worth of entertainment is densely packed into a short explosion of a show:

“We build scaffoldings, a guy taps upside down, we tap in water, we tap with a basketball. It’s really innovative stuff. People just gasp when they see it. It’s only 75 minutes – and that’s about all we can do. ”

Burke and the other members of the company have been on tour for four months. Though the schedule of eight performances a week, plus rehearsal time, is grueling, the dancers, according to Burke, manage to thrill audiences night after night.

“It’s pretty exhausting,” says Burke, “but everyone is really supportive. … It helps when you have a really great audience because you’re giving so much and it’s so high-energy. There’s only six guys, so you walk out feeling like you saw six of your friends onstage.”

Make that six of your most muscular, good-looking, male friends, soaking wet in denim cutoffs, and you may find an explanation for the screaming audiences.

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