By Zoey Zha and Andrew Chin
Considered a national treasure in Australia, dance spectacle Tap Dogs takes over the QSW Cultural Center from September 2 to 21. Months away from its 20th birthday, the show has been seen by over 12 million people in more than 330 cities across six continents.
Described by BBC as “part theater, part dance, part rock concert and part construction site,” Tap Dogs is a celebration of show creator Dein Perry’s industrial hometown Newcastle, located a few hours north of Sydney.
“It revolves around a sort of building site and metal workshop ideal,” explains longtime cast member and Dein’s brother, Shelden. “Dein was a metal machine operator who just happened to learn tap dancing when he was five.”
The show follows six characters: the Foreman (Doug Mills), 2IC (Perry), Rat (James Doubtfire), Funky (Chase Rossiello), Enforcer (Richie Miller) and Kid (Nathan Hancock) on the job.
It opens with a solitary dancer performing on a small, red flat surface and builds into a spectacle over 80 uninterrupted minutes. Throughout, the cast tap dances in water, upside down and while jumping through scaffolding.
“We build the set as we’re going along,” Doubtfire adds. “So not only do you have to tap dance, be in character and entertain the crowd, you also have to check everyone’s stuff for safety.”
Tap Dogs’ aesthetics reflect the true story of its creation. The show’s original cast members learned dance as children under local teacher Lee Griffiths, who Shelden praises for “teaching us how to make tap music.”
Faced with no opportunities to perform, Dein became an industry machinist at 17. A move to Sydney yielded a series of small roles before his big break, a recurring role on the popular Sydney production of 42nd Street.
After that show closed, Dein returned to Newcastle to connect with childhood friends, with a desire to build a contemporary dance show based on their experiences. A small government grant funded an early version called Tap Brothers, earning Dein an invitation to choreograph the West End musical Hot Shoe Shuffle.
It was a raging success. Dein won his first Olivier Award for choreography, and was invited to create a show for the Sydney Theatre Company. He connected with designer/director Nigel Triffitt and composer Andrew Wilkie to create Tap Dogs.
Premiering at the 1995 Sydney Theatre Festival, the show caused a stir. Similar reactions followed at the Edinburgh Festival, with subsequent tours across Australia and Europe, as well as residencies in the West End and off-Broadway in New York. Numerous awards followed, including a second Olivier Award for Dein. The 2000 film Bootmen immortalized the show’s creation story.
Throughout its run, the show keeps evolving, adding new props, tricks and things for the dancers to tap on. “The tap is tighter, our technique is stronger, the lighting’s gotten much bigger and we’ve incorporated new technology into the show,” says Shelden.
Mills says the biggest change has been the characters’ growth. “All of them were based on the original cast and, over time, we’ve added a lot of gags,” he explains. “The show has gotten a lot funnier and the characters stronger. There’s not a story to our show, but the characters create one. You start to like them for different reasons.”
Its Shanghai residency is a major feature of this year’s Shanghai Tourism Festival. The QSW Culture Center plans to introduce tap dancing workshops, with the first ones set for August 31 concurrently at K11, Kerry Centre and Global Harbor.
Boosting the art form’s popularity is a welcome byproduct of the show’s success. Dein has established the Tap Pups school to teach kids, and Shelden notes with pride how Tap Dogs has changed perceptions.
“The cool thing is kids are inspired to do it, because they see the cool rock ‘n roll band style we do and that it is not too 42nd Street,” he says. “They go, ‘That’s cool. If I were to tap dance, I want to do it like the Tap Dogs do.’”
// Sep 2-21, 8pm (2pm matinees on weekends), RMB150-880. QSW Culture Center, 179 Yichang Lu, by Jiangning Lu 宜昌路179号, 近江宁路 (www.smartshanghai.com/smartticket)