Dogs’ Tap in for 10th Anniversary

Tap Dogs Comes to the Arlington

“It’s rock ’n’ roll tap dance.” That’s how Ryan Gravelle — an eight-year veteran of Australia’s Tap Dogs — describes the group’s 10th anniversary show, which hoofs into Santa Barbara this week as part of the Broadway at the Arlington series. Years ago, choreographer Dein Perry thought to pay tribute to his hometown — Newcastle, an Aussie steel hamlet — onstage. He created Tap Brothers, an innovative production that emphasized raw dance moves, as opposed to the high-tech gadgetry, orchestral accompaniment, and set design that are hallmarks of many modern tap shows. “Instead of the tap dancing accompanying the music,” Gravelle said, “the music accompanies the dancing.” Upon leaving Newcastle, Perry landed stints in Broadway chorus lines and made the leap to full-fledged choreographer, winning an Olivier Award for his work on the West End musical Hot Shoe Shuffle. Then, fate intervened — he accepted a job offer from Sydney Theatre Company, working alongside director Nigel Triffitt, who encouraged Perry to revisit Brothers. They revamped the production and in 1995, the show was reborn as Tap Dogs, featuring six of the best male dancers Down Under. After debuting at the Sydney and Edinburgh theater festivals, it quickly became an international success. This week, the 10th Anniversary Tour comes to the Arlington. For the dance celebration of the decade, Perry came out of a self-imposed hiatus. At the start of the tour, “he hadn’t performed with the show in eight years,” said Gravelle. “Dein went on a massive training program, lost 80 pounds, and put himself back in the cast. He brought the quality of the show back to its original level.” In celebrating the 75-city extravaganza, Perry’s entire production has been reinvigorated, and several new dance numbers have been added. One in particular is sure to excite our basketball-crazed Central Coast — the six members of the group engage in a choreographed game of hoops while at the same time executing rigorous tap sequences. “The show’s so different from everything else out there,” explained Gravelle. And innovation abounds in this incarnation. Take Triffitt’s set design. Audience members are initially greeted by a near-empty stage, save one wooden plank. Over the course of Tap Dogs, the dancers erect the scenery, beam by beam — by the final number, it’s become an elaborate scaffold — with their bare hands. The construction elements are in step with tap choreography. “There’s always room for error with a show like this,” Gravelle laughed nervously. During a recent performance in Mexico City, for example, a dancer inserted a tiny screw incorrectly. By the end of that particular number, the entire set was in peril. “We were running around really fast on stage, trying to figure out what went wrong. But we saved it,” Gravelle reflected. The set’s industrial look is influenced by Perry’s childhood in Newcastle, as are numbers that employ everyday power tools. Gravelle thinks local audiences will enjoy one of the group’s new sequences, in which the entire cast “uses metal grinders that produce massive sparks.” This creates cool sound and visual effects, especially when one guy “dances into the middle of the spark field.” For Gravelle, an American, joining the prestigious company meant opening his mind to new things. “Australians have their own style of tap, their own steps,” he said, “and every style and type of tap dance is covered in the show. I had to learn moves that are basic in Australia but not taught here.” Just as Dogs opened Gravelle’s eyes to new forms of movement, he thinks the production will do the same for Santa Barbara theater-goers not yet acclimated to the frenetic world of tap. “Anybody will appreciate it. There’s such an emphasis on the actual dancing,” he said. “Everything [visual] that happens onstage supports the dance.” For those who enjoy world music, the hoofers are backed by two musicians who play everything from jazz to Latin tunes to familiar strains of rock ’n’ roll. Still, one of Gravelle’s favorite sequences is the production’s opening number, a 20-minute, full-company tap display that takes place in total silence. In effect, Perry has transformed raw tap-dancing — the noise the men’s feet make as they step — into music. Though Gravelle and others arrive on the Central Coast as grizzled members of the Dog pack and know their routines well, they do enjoy occasional improvisation. “I’d say 95 percent of the choreography is set,” he said, “but there’s always room for improv in our solo numbers.” The cast, he adds, hopes local audiences feel like part of the performance. “We’ll try to get them involved as much as possible. … We like rowdy audiences. The thing that crowds always appreciate — here, in Africa, in Korea — is how hard we’re working.”

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