Steel ideas from Newcastle

Tap Dogs creator Dein Perry got the inspiration for his show from his apprenticeship stint in the steel-making town

A performance by Tap Dogs created by Dein Perry (above) was inspired by the Australian’s teenage years when he learnt to tap dance in the garage behind his teacher’s house. -- PHOTO: TAP DOGS
A performance by Tap Dogs created by Dein Perry (above) was inspired by the Australian’s teenage years when he learnt to tap dance in the garage behind his teacher’s house. -- PHOTO: TAP DOGS
A performance by Tap Dogs (above) created by Dein Perry was inspired by the Australian’s teenage years when he learnt to tap dance in the garage behind his teacher’s house. -- PHOTO: BASE ENTERTAINMENT ASIA

After 15 years, award-winning Australian tap dance show Tap Dogs will be coming back to Singapore this month for eight performances only.

The show, which debuted in 1995, is the brainchild of creator and choreo- grapher Dein Perry.

Tap Dogs is set on a construction site in Newcastle, a city two hours' drive north of Sydney. A team of six dancers and two musicians put their skills together, performing in water, upside down or jumping through scaffolding.

The show premiered at the Sydney Theatre Festival, before achieving international acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival and London's Sadler's Wells Theatre.

Since then, it has toured the world, appearing in more than 330 cities and seen by more than 12 million people. It has also won more than 11 international awards, including an Obie Award in New York and a Pegasus Award at the Spoleto Festival in Italy.

In creating Tap Dogs, Perry drew from his experiences as an industrial machinist, and before that, as a young boy learning tap dancing in his neighbour's garage. He began tap dancing lessons when he was four and took three to four lessons a week until he was 16.

"It was something that I was used to doing and I enjoyed it because all my friends were doing it as well," says the 51-year-old Australian.

After leaving Newcastle when he was 20 for Sydney to pursue his dance career, he worked in musical theatre for about 10 years until he got his big break when he was cast in the hit musical 42nd Street.

In 1991, he was awarded a grant to form the Tap Brothers, an early incarnation of Tap Dogs.

He also co-choreographed and starred in Hot Shoe Shuffle and the Australian dance musical earned Perry his first Olivier Award in 1995. In 1994, he conceived and choreographed Tap Dogs, and received his second Olivier Award in 1996 for the show.

Dancing not only kickstarted Perry's illustrious career, but also led him to meet his wife, Lisa Perry, when they were on the theatre show Rasputin.

They have three children - Reid, 16, and 12-year-old twin daughters Bella and Georgia.

While Tap Dogs has been around for 20 years, Perry says the show has been revamped with new elements, such as introducing female musicians to the once all-male cast.

"The show is a lot funnier and the music's changed over that period of time as well," he says. "It's the same set, it's the same feel and the same tap dance, but the show is so much slicker now."

1 Did you always know you wanted to pursue a career in dance?

I think about halfway through my apprenticeship as a fitter and turner, when I was about 18, I thought I want to dance because I wasn't enjoying the apprenticeship. And I thought the only other thing I was good at was dancing.

When I finished my apprenticeship when I was 20, I left Newcastle for Sydney. I had no money and just did the best I could to pursue my career in dancing. I worked in a lot of different cabaret shows and musicals. I finally got a role in 42nd Street after 10 years, and with that I got a bit of a name.

People started to know who I was a little bit more and, from there, I got an opportunity to choreograph Hot Shoe Shuffle. That won a lot of choreographic awards in Australia and London. I was already working on the concept of Tap Dogs and was offered money to develop it into a show.

2 How did Newcastle give you inspiration for Tap Dogs?

Newcastle was a steel-making town. It's a strange thing because Newcastle has lovely, beautiful beaches. But straight off in the harbour of Newcastle, there were massive steelworks and engineering plants.

A lot of people who came from Newcastle at that time were steelworkers. My uncles, my grandfathers and my brothers worked in the steel industry.

That's just something you did when you were in Newcastle.

3 Tap Dogs has been running for 20 years. Aren't you afraid that people will get tired of the show because it's always about hunks tap dancing on stage?

Yes, of course. But we keep performing the show and people keep loving it. I guess you worry that the show will come to an end in that fashion. But every time we perform the show, the audiences are so responsive and I love it so much. They love it. There's nothing wrong with the concept. The show is very slick now, and you can't just make something like that very easily. It's something that has been built and honed over a long period of time.

4 How did you start your dance school, Tap Pups?

We never really took my son, Reid, to a proper dance school, so I would teach him a few steps in the backyard. We used to put a piece of wood down and teach him a few steps. He was about four or five years old, and a couple of his friends heard about it, and they started learning as well. So we thought: "Now we have to get somewhere bigger to teach them all."

Before we knew it, we had six kids, then we had 10. Then we had to make another class because we couldn't keep them all into one class and then we had a tap dance school. So we probably had about 150 boys learn tap dance from us and we've been doing that for about 10 years now.

5 Would you let your son pursue tap dancing as a career?

He really likes it. His mum probably doesn't want him to go on tour with Tap Dogs because he's too young. I prefer him to get a good education at this point of time. If he wants to do it a little bit later and the show's still happening, then we'll look into it.

6 You choreographed a tap sequence, Eternity, in the Sydney 2000 Olympics opening ceremony. What were the major challenges in doing that?

It was the number of people in that sequence. Tap Dogs has a fixed number of people on stage. But for that, we had 1,300 tap dancers and they had to tap dance on a set that had to be driven into place. Everything had to move like clockwork. We rehearsed for three months to get it right. It was nerve-racking.

But on the night of the opening ceremony, it sort of all came together, thankfully. But if you asked me on the night before, I wouldn't have been very happy at all.

7 You've directed a film feature, Bootmen (2000), as well. Do you prefer working with the film medium or live theatre?

They're different. Film is very slow compared to theatre. Once a show starts on stage, it can't stop. Your audience is in there and you get a reaction. And you do get a chance the next day to fix things if there's something wrong or not working properly.

With film, it's very slow and tedious, and it takes forever to get through. Once the final product's there, there's no changing it and it's done. So I have to say I probably enjoy theatre more.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

As someone who tried to take tap dancing and move it into the modern era. That would be something that I would like to be remembered for and, hopefully, that's the way it would work out.


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