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
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
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
"arguably Australia’s most successful art export
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 . . ."