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PERFORMING ARTS

Blokes. Boots. Industrial-Strength Tap.

The land that brought us koalas and Paul Hogan now has spawned 'Tap Dogs.' Fasten your eardrums.

September 01, 1996|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Dein Perry, creator and choreographer of "Tap Dogs," has finally arrived at his Westwood hotel after a long flight from Toronto. He lights the first cigarette he's had in hours and settles down for a chat--and then the telephone rings. He doesn't answer it, but it keeps on ringing. So Perry commits an act that just might be considered a felony in the publicity-hungry world of show business: He unplugs the phone. That stops the phone from ringing in one room, but not in the other. Politely apologizing as if he is personally to blame for all phones currently ringing in Greater Los Angeles, Perry excuses himself, goes to the bedroom and yanks that phone too.

Perry is unconcerned that his press representatives or even some powerful Hollywood producer might be looking for him on the eve of "Tap Dogs' " United States opening Wednesday night at UCLA's nearby Veterans Wadsworth Theater, the kickoff concert of a 23-week U.S. tour. "If I answer, I'll be stuck on it forever," Perry says with a shrug.

Just a few minutes earlier, Perry had also seemed unfazed by having his photo taken before having the chance to "freshen up," as his representative suggested. He looked down at his unassuming uniform of black T-shirt, jeans and black work boots, which is also "Tap Dogs' " basic dance costume. "I don't look that bad, do I?" he teased gently before obligingly heading out to pose in the hotel's poolside courtyard.

Perry, 33--a somewhat shy native of the Australian coal-mining and steel town of Newcastle, about 100 miles north of Sydney--is the opposite of a prima donna. Despite a 10-year dance career that includes a role in the long-running Sydney production of "42nd Street" and the first of his two Olivier Awards for his choreographic work for London's West End musical "Hot Shoe Shuffle," Dein (pronounced "Dean") Perry--a former industrial machinist and truck driver--is just one of the guys. One of the blokes. You know--one of the dogs.

And who are the dogs? The Tap Dogs are six Aussie guys from a variety of non-show-biz backgrounds whom Perry brought together a few years ago to reinvent tap dancing with a rough-edged industrial style. Most of the dancers are childhood chums who took tap lessons as kids in Newcastle--Perry started at age 4 at the behest of his mother, who always wanted to tap herself--but then drifted into other occupations.

Dancer Drew Kaluski, for example, was a painter and decorator who hadn't danced in seven years when Perry approached him about reviving his tap dancing. "He was a big bloke, [weighing] 18 stone [252 pounds] or something like that. He came down to Sydney and started to work on the show. He lost a lot of weight, but he's still a really big bloke. This is his first [dance] job."

All the guys are burlier than your average Broadway dancer, Perry acknowledges. "They're big boys, yeah," he says.

Unlike the popular dance-and-percussion show, "Stomp," in which the performers create sounds with back-alley props such as brooms and garbage-can lids as well as their feet, Perry describes "Tap Dogs' " style as less born of the urban street than the industrial warehouse. During the course of the show, the performers actually build the set piece by piece and end up with a construction site of metal ramps, steel girders and metal scaffolding. "The guys build the set and then dance all over it," Perry says.

The idea, Perry explains, is to make as much noise as possible through tap and musical instruments. "We amplify it to get, like, a rock 'n' roll edge--we use heavy-metal guitar in it and try to get the level of sound up to really huge, to the level of a rock 'n' roll band."

Perry says that the dancers experiment with changing the sound of the taps by dancing on different surfaces. They wear their taps on heavy Australian work boots. "I like getting on metal. You get a huge amount of noise out of it. It's the metal on metal that gives it a really nice click."

The Tap Dogs even do some tapping in water. "It's part of the danger element of the show," Perry says proudly. "By the end of the show, you end up dancing flat-out in water, there are some seriously big puddles. The audience gets a bit of it as well, the first couple of rows."

While acknowledging the inevitable comparisons, Perry believes that the popularity of "Stomp," which made its West Coast debut at UCLA in 1994 and returns in March, can only increase interest in "Tap Dogs." "Yeah, it doesn't actually worry me," Perry says. "The first gig we ever did, we had to follow 'Stomp,' at the same venue on the same stage. We couldn't bring ourselves to [watch], because then it would have been really hard to get onstage and do it. We worked with them for three weeks.

"I think, if anything, 'Stomp' has opened up a market that we can pop into. I mean, I love 'Stomp,' I've seen it several times now. There are some comparisons, but when it boils down to it, we are tap dancers. That's all we do."

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