Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review: Buckets and Tap Shoes

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Please come tonight for our...show. We have worked very hard to make this the tightest and most entertaining "Buckets and Tap Shoes" performance EVER! –Facebook post by Rick Ausland, Mar. 29, 2009, for the last of 5 performances at the Music Box Theatre, Minneapolis.

In the year 2039, what passes for that era's version of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" might well feature the Ausland brothers, Rick and Andy, in the latest of their recurring appearances on the program. As always, their presence would include an energetic and accomplished funky tap dance segment that brings the studio audience to its feet while clapping and cheering to the rhythm.

The duo's conversation with Leno's successor might include reminiscences about their early steps toward stardom during the first, recession-wracked decade of the century when they tapped-out their reputation one gig at a time: Dover, Charleston, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Rapid City, New York, Madison, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., Denver, Kansas City, Hawaii, Austria, Finland, Russia, Ecuador. To name just a very few.


Mention might be made of their beginnings, applying drum sticks to five-gallon paint buckets and tap dancing on the streets of Minneapolis outside the Metrodome and various nightclubs in the Warehouse District – improvised outings that garnered much applause and occasional abuse.

Some members of that futuristic Leno audience might recall their own presence on the electric evening of November 29, 2003, when Rick, Andy, and their accomplices exploded through the back doors of the Walker Art Center's old auditorium to thump and bump their way to the stage and into recorded history, while the audience for a Choreographer's Evening went totally nuts for the first time in years.

While the Ausland's memories of the blood, sweat, and tears of the early years probably will have dimmed by 2039, they may retain a deep reservoir of satisfaction and gratitude for the meaningful experiences they shared with countless people around the globe. One hopes so. We knew these guys were good long before someone writing in the New York Times said they were "utterly brilliant."

Rick and Andy have tap danced since they were kids. In 1997, they formed Ten Foot Five Productions with three friends as a vehicle for a dance competition (10 feet/5 guys). Known more popularly as Buckets and Tap Shoes, their company of musicians, percussionists, and hoofers presented a major series of five concert performances at The Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis, Mar. 26-29, 2009.

The well-paced program included elements of funk, jazz, classical, hip-hop, blues, and rock in two dozen segments. The proceedings opened with a parade by five performers entering from the back of the house, pounding on a variety of drums as they danced their way to the stage to the accompaniment of rhythmic clapping by the audience. Attired neck-to-ankle in navy blue industrial coveralls, the five lined-up across the stage for an extended section of original, percussive music, switching positions with each other repeatedly without missing a beat.

Costumes changed frequently throughout the show and reflected multiple, individual combinations of blue jeans, slacks, t-shirts, button-down shirts – with and without ties, occasional sport coats, and vests.

Episodes of call-and-response kept audience members participating and engaged – not that they required assistance in that regard. Boundaries between program segments were sometimes marked by moments of abrupt, motionless silence with each performer bathed in a straight-down square of light.

A tap dance in three parts ended the 40-minute first half. On a blacked-out stage, Andy tapped a virtuosic solo while shining a flashlight at his feet. This was followed by Rick's solo-with-flashlight, executed from the center of the orchestra audience while navigating stairs in the dark. A duet by both ensued onstage, accompanied by atmospheric smoke. The section worked well, but one wished for a brighter illumination, aimed more directly on the dancers's feet, rather than in front of, in order to highlight the complex footwork.

Rick and Andy returned precisely 15 minutes later to accompany a recording of Mozart's Turkish Rondo, hoofing in perfect sync with the music and each other. This morphed into a charming and jazzy, downstage interlude by bassist Dan Ristrom and trumpeter Aaron Wiener which, in turn, morphed into a set with the up-ended paint buckets, complete with juggled drumsticks and empty Culligan water bottles. More morphing followed as Ristrom and Wiener provided a funky interlude leading to a Funkeapolis tap dance that sequed into a Funkeapolis tune sung by all five, including drummer Chris Vanderpoll.

At that point, I stopped taking notes because the pace accelerated while the performers danced solo and as a group, vocalized, and stirred a cauldron of audience frenzy that bubbled over to a wild, standing ovation, an encore, and a second ovation. Six minutes before 10pm, everyone in the audience was energized and everyone on stage was exhausted. All were joyous.

The concentration of so much multi-faceted talent in these five individuals makes their enterprise shine like a jewel, one that should be treasured more widely and deeply than it is. Each has clearly devoted the requisite 10,000 hours of training to become a master of his profession, and each is well on the way to acquiring 10,000 hours of experience on stage. As it can for many artists, the heart aches in its witness of their commitment and earnest desire to succeed.

Theirs are generous souls, devoting a page of the printed program to recognize and thank more than 75 individuals and organizations that have lent them assistance. They also are shy fellows, omitting any information about themselves, their backgrounds, and their experiences. In this particular they err; new people, like the women seated behind me, want to know more, while those who are more familiar need help remembering the details from one encounter to the next. Nonetheless, they have become savvy about promoting their performances, and arranged demonstration appearances on the Fox, ABC, and NBC television stations in the Twin Cities.

They are true pros. However, they are in need of a stronger infrastructure that can calm the frenzy and lift the load of their offstage activities. For the long term, they should examine whether a non-profit or for-profit business model can more efficiently serve, sustain, and advance their interests. In either case, the infusion of a modest but significant amount of capital would propel them to the heights that rightfully should be theirs. Someone(s) needs to take on their cause.

• • •

The Music Box Theatre, located near downtown Minneapolis and the city's convention center, is an architectural gem – from an audience perspective – built as a vaudeville house in 1920. Currently operating on a for-profit basis, the theater is a 440-seat house, renting for a modest base charge of $3,500 a week. While its stage is not suitable for most concert dance, its raked seating offers good sightlines to audiences.

It needs improvement in at least one area. For the Saturday evening performance by Buckets and Tap Shoes, advertised to begin at 8pm, only one ticket seller occupied the box office. At 8pm, 43 people still stood in line to purchase tickets or pick up will call orders. Two individuals, who clearly worked for the theater, stood by watching the line's slow progression, while occasionally helping a third employee at the concessions counter. This is a low level of service that, tempered by degree, is as outrageous as the poor performance of many of our wizards of Wall Street finance.

The customer always comes first. It does not matter whether one's job description includes the selling of tickets; employees with pride in their work ethic will add value to their skill sets by taking the initiative to pitch in, to learn, and to help out. When 43 people are waiting to give you $20 each – plus sales tax plus service charge – you need to make it easy for them to do it, even if it comes at the expense of missing out on a sale for a $2 cookie or cup of java. In at least this instance, the Music Box personnel needed to embody a fraction of the can-do spirit that animates some of their renters.

To balance and round out the observation: What was one to make of the customers who were still entering the lobby to join the ticket line at 8:06pm? Did they not know the start time? Did they not leave home in sufficient time to locate a new venue? Did they assume that no one else would be waiting to make a last-minute purchase? Did they think it would be acceptable to take their seats after the performance started? Did they think at all? Hopefully, they thought to tell their friends to turn out for the next performance.

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