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Fifty million dollars later . . . ANDREW L. URBAN is invited onto the set of BOOTMEN, the film that Dein Perry of the hugely successful stage show, Tap Dogs (with $50 million global box office takings) and Steel City fame is making, an all Australian dance drama about one girl, two working class Newcastle brothers, and brilliant, industrial strength tap dancing.

July 30, 1999:
It’s mid morning and the back lanes of Sydney’s Italian district, Leichhardt, are quiet – well, except for the incessant roar of giant jets coming in and taking off from the nearby Mascot airport. On one corner, trucks, lights and standard-scruffy film crew with ear-connected walkie talkies mark the presence of a film unit at work. The building, once a warehouse or a factory, has been converted into the interior of a working class Newcastle home, and the tall, dark and handsome young Adam Garcia is sitting on the sofa, finishing lunch. Outside, a second hand car is slowly decaying even as I watch.

"There aren’t many guys who can cut a big acting role and the dance"

Co-writer and director Dein Perry always had Garcia in mind for the role of 20 year old Sean: "I knew it had to be him even before I started. There aren’t many guys who can cut a big acting role and the dance. My wife used to teach him and I knew him for years. He worked with us on Hot Shoe Shuffle…"

Garcia won rave reviews for his performance as Tony Manero in the West End production of Saturday Night Fever in the U.K., following his debut there in Hot Shoe Shuffle. His next role, in the West End production of Grease, led to his first play Birdy, also in the West End. It was here that he caught the attention of director Arlene Phillips who cast him in the lead role in Saturday Night Fever.

Sean is the character at the centre of Bootmen, the youngster who dreams of dancing professionally, of building his own company, and who wants to leave Newcastle to make dance his life. But there are complications, of course, and there’s a girl, Linda, played by Sophie Lee, who is the apex of the love triangle – with Sean’s older brother Micthell (Sam Worthington) at the other corner. There are things to be resolved . . .

"dance on screen is as powerful as on stage"

Neither Sam nor Sophie are around during my visit, but seasoned character actor of stage and screen, William Zappa, is; he plays Walter, the gammy legged tap dance teacher. "I really wanted to have a go at least with one foot," he says jovially. Well, of course he would; dance on screen is as powerful as on stage, and he wanted a close up on his right foot. We’ll see if he got it. . . .

The scene is pivotal to the film, a quietly dramatic moment between Sean and Walter in which Sean discovers some secrets about his mother.

Others in the cast include Lisa Perry (Dein’s wife, playing Sean’s mum), Anthony Hayes, Richard Carter, Susie Porter and Bruce Venebales, while Dein Perry gets to play a cameo character, Anthony Ford, with one solid dance number, the only one that is reminiscent of the 30s and 40s glitzy stuff, complete with staircase. But the rest of the dance is fiery and firmly rustic. "And all the dance is part of the story," he says. "We don’t cut to an invisible orchestra and a dance number." Even though there are 25 minutes of dance in the film, which Linstead describes as "a hybrid; funny, dramatic and it also has a tragic element. A bit of everything, but not a fluffy musical. . . We set out to tell a story about two young guys and a girl, so we hope it’ll appeal to young people, but we did find that Tap Dogs appealed to a very broad audience range."

It’s the tail end of an eight week shoot; four of it in Newcastle, doing the exteriors (ranging from the docklands to the beaches, lovingly shot by Steve Mason [Strictly Ballroom]), another four in Sydney, doing the interiors. Producer Hilary Linstead explains that it’s cheaper to shoot the interiors in Sydney, because the crew are locals. And although Fox Searchlight is stumping up half the cash – in return for world distribution rights - (the Film Finance Corporation put up the rest), the budget is too small to use the Fox studios, even if they were available. Linstead, who worked on the script with Steve Worland and Perry, says it’s a "working class, heterosexual background, so we had to get it right."

"inspire a young tap dancer to revolutionise tap"

There is a singular lack of activity as I snoop about; nobody is dancing, nobody is even moving and nobody is shouting. Dein Perry, in unhurried and unflappable mode, chews his roast chicken leg. Linstead, his partner in Bootmen Productions (and who packaged Tap Dogs and Steel City), watches and smiles as I sit on a dilapidated armchair. "Can’t move it … [to keep the] continuity," says Perry quietly, so he moves a light stand out of the way, then sits down opposite me in the equally delapidated sofa. The set, a modest working class home, is evidence that in this film, the dancing is not going to be on extravagant or luxurious sets.

This is the film that shows how an engineering shop can and did inspire a young tap dancer to revolutionise tap, taking its traditions and adding a contempo, steely, tough new character. It was Perry who did that: more about that a little later on. Bootmen is not autobiographical, but is set in Perry’s home town, Newcastle. It is also set in the working class culture, taking it smack bang into its origins – grass roots people. But with a twist.

Despite being a brilliant traditional tapper, Perry always knew he wanted to extend the boundaries of tap. In 1994 he conceived and choreographed a short piece for the Performance Space on ABC Television. Finally he had the chance to unveil his own unique style of dance. This rough, boots-and-all tap, performed in a railway yard, won the City of Strasbourg Prize in the Short Programme Category and signalled the inception of Tap Dogs.

Later that year Hilary Linstead, Perry’s agent, introduced him to Nigel Triffitt. It was to be an auspicious encounter. The two decided to collaborate on a show with the encouragement of Wayne Harrison, Artistic Director of the Sydney Theatre Company. Tap Dogs the stage show was born. The Dogs had their world premiere at the 1995 Sydney Festival, becoming the hit of the season and creating a sensation at The Edinburgh Festival later that year.

"arguably Australia’s most successful art export ever"

Four years later (1999) the Tap Dogs phenomenon continues. The production has been seen on four continents – in all corners of the world, including London’s West End, Japan, India, Korea, Canada, Italy and New Zealand. Perry also took the show to New York, playing Off-Broadway for over six months. There are now two Tap Dogs companies touring extensively in the United States, one of which has played a sit-down season at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. A third company is continuing a tour of the UK and Europe, having completed a sell-out season in Paris.

Tap Dogs is arguably Australia’s most successful art export ever and has earned gross box office in excess of $50 million world-wide. Well over 1.5 million people have seen this unique production and it is still going strong.

Tap Dogs has appeared on numerous television shows including The Jay Leno Show, the sitcom Ellen and Quincy Jones’ 50th Anniversary Special, where they sang with Stevie Wonder.

In 1998, Sydney saw the World Premiere of Dein Perry’s Steel City. Directed and choreographed by Perry, Steel City took Perry’s unique industrial tap to a new dimension, with music by Tim Finn, a cast of thirteen and four musicians. The show toured Australia during 1998 before playing a special season at Radio City Music Hall in New York in January 1999.

"excited but restrained"

Bootmen is due to be completed in March 2000, hitting screens soon thereafter - exactly eight years after Strictly Ballroom made its debut, also with dance at its heart, if a very different type. Linstead and Perry are excited but restrained: at least the worst is over. "The worst was in preproduction, when I kept wondering, Could they do it? Could I do it? But thank god they’re all so talented . . ."

August, 1999

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Andrew L. Urban talks to


Tap is originally an American dance; it combines elements of African drumming and dancing with European clog and step dancing. The unique rhythms of jazz distinguish American tap. With vaudeville, great individual talents like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and John Bubbles helped to refine rhythm tap dance and later Hollywood popularised tap worldwide with films featuring Fred Astaire, the Nicholas Brothers, and Eleanore Powell, among others.

During the 1950's tap lost is popularity but in the 60's, several public tap events ignited a revival. Suddenly, tap was considered an art form rather than just entertainment.

During the 1970's, tap returned to Broadway, to film, and the concert stage throughout the USA, Europe, and Japan.

May 25 was proclaimed as National Tap Dance Day by a vote of Congress in 1989, and is celebrated by enthusiasts across the USA.
(Courtesy B. Sirio, Centro Danza)

But are the Yanks ready for Australian working class tap!?

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