Fancy Foot Work

They came out of nowhere. Or so it seemed to those of us who think we’re hip to the Twin Cities’ dance scene. They surfaced—or maybe the better word is “erupted”—last November at Choreographers’ Evening, Walker Art Center’s annual smorgasbord of classic, offbeat, up-and-coming, or just plain zany talent. Ten Foot Five caused a commotion even before their actual performance began, with five boys bursting through the back doors of the auditorium and lurching down the steps. Gathering onstage in their baggy low-slung pants, cowboy shirts, and multicolored tap shoes, with their long hair tucked under caps, they looked like a motley crew of…well, it was hard to say. All I remember next is the feeling of being hit with a testosterone tsunami: a wave of tap dancing and bucket drumming delivered with such raw energy that it made me absolutely giddy.

These young men are part of the newest generation of performers that has been bringing tap into the mainstream, from Savion Glover’s paean to the old guys, to companies with an industrial edge like Tap Dogs, to percussive troupes like Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum. But what Ten Foot Five was doing was less slick than Stomp, more visceral than Tap Dogs, narrative-free compared to the Flying Foot Forum, fresher than Savage Aural Hotbed, and grungier than David Van Tieghem. There was breathtaking footwork marked by speed, grace, and pile-driving force, right alongside frat-boy antics. They tore off their sweat-soaked shirts, dumped water over their heads, and splintered drumsticks before they snapped their performance shut with a communal shout: “Britney Tongued Madonna” (the title of their piece).

The auditorium went wild. Young women jumped up and down. People walked out dazed and delirious. I asked a Walker staff person, “Who are these guys? Where did they come from?” He said, “I think they’re from some dance studio in Maplewood. They just showed up at auditions.” Whatever their origins, here was a group worth keeping tabs on, a refreshingly raucous addition to the dance community.

Ten Foot Five surfaced again last June at Laurie Van Wieren’s monthly “Dance Lab” event at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Van Wieren says she added “this tribe of guys with great energy” to her lineup “because they’re so much about the show, about interacting with the audience.” By this time, the troupe’s lineup included Kaleena Miller, a quiet woman and intense dancer who dropped the testosterone level several degrees. But the troupe’s irrepressible energy and exhilarating footwork were still out in force—as was the insouciant attitude.

Van Wieren typically asks her performers to talk with the audience and answer questions after their show—one of those bonuses intended to give aficionados “insider” info and to demystify things for newcomers to the dance world. But the lanky, blond Ausland brothers—Rick and Andy, the core members—were clearly trying the patience of their host. Rick waved incense under his nose to bring himself “out of the zone.” Andy ignored Van Wieren’s entreaties to take the microphone, then used it to deliver a few brief words before bursting into mouth percussion. “I think they were a little uncomfortable talking about their work in a more serious way than they’re used to,” she said later.

That onstage attitude, however, fused with the dancers’ full-bodied, even spiritual immersion in tap, is what makes their performances so galvanizing, without being slick. The Auslands may be young (Rick is twenty-six; Andy, twenty-three), and they may be unpolished newcomers to the concert-dance scene, but they’re players in this area’s small but vital tap community. Rick’s emails to Ten Foot Five fans, for instance, include notices about performances at Heartbeat Dance Studio in Apple Valley featuring Jeni LeGonow, the first black woman to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio; and Dianne “Lady Di” Walker, who appeared in the film Tap with the late Gregory Hines.

The troupe has performed and taught at the St. Louis Tap Festival alongside such legends as Jimmy Slyde, and the Ausland brothers teach at local tap studios like Heartbeat and the Lundstrum Center for the Performing Arts in Minneapolis. A fourteen-year-old Rick also tapped during the Super Bowl XXVI halftime show in Minneapolis and danced in Crazy for You at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. Yet what the Auslands are mostly doing right now is drumming, on the streets of downtown Minneapolis, often near the Metrodome. “Keep your eyes and ears open,” one of their emails read. “There’s no tellin’ where they might pop up next!”

The Fringe Festival was where they popped up next. A last-minute addition, their Buckets and Tap Shoes was selected Best of the Fringe (from nearly two hundred shows) and went on to play for three weeks at the Loring Playhouse after the Fringe Festival closed. The group—the Auslands, Miller, and original Ten Foot Fivers Ricci Milan and Nick Bowman—literally ripped up the floor (divots flew!) with propulsive tap rhythms and exuberant antics, when they weren’t hammering on paint buckets, cowbells, and metal cans. They also formed a funk quartet with Rick on drums, Andy on guitar, Jeremy Mundth on bass, and Dan Kusz on saxophone. The group suggested readings on its performance program that offered further clues to their passions and proclivities, ranging from the autobiographies of Malcolm X and Gandhi to Carlos Castaneda and John Robbins’ Diet for a New America; suggested listening included Parliament Funkadelic, Radiohead, and Stevie Wonder. Clearly, it was time to talk to these guys.

Natives of south Minneapolis, the Auslands studied for more than a decade at Larkin Dance Studios in Maplewood. But they were already tapping and banging on buckets by age three. Their mom, Mary Chismar, was a dance teacher; their dad, Karl Ausland, drummed for twenty years with the White Sidewalls. “So we’ve been around dance and music since we were born,” Rick says. “It was just a normal thing to do tap, ballet, and jazz.”

Ten Foot Five had its genesis in 1997 after Rick quit film school at Minneapolis Community Technical College. (“Dude, you can do this when you’re old,” he told himself one day.) He and Andy corralled friends they’d made during tap competitions around town. They choreographed a three-minute competitive dance number and did well. Commissions for longer shows followed, including some for corporate shindigs thrown by the likes of Target, Mall of America, Saturn, and Best Buy. After performing at the St. Louis Tap Festival in 1999, Ten Foot Five was invited to a similar festival in Finland and began traveling around the world; in recent years they’ve performed in cities as varied as Washington, D.C., Vienna, and Quito, Ecuador.

Andy admits he can’t read music and maintained a low profile at South High. “No one knew I tapped in high school,” he says. “I kept to myself.” But he writes what he describes as the “skeleton of the show. I get all the main combos down, then everyone throws in ideas. So it ends up being something I never could have imagined.” The onstage pieces usually start out with Rick and Andy drumming on paint buckets. Jaw-dropping tap dancing follows. Then music-making, mixed with percussive dancing and drumming.

“I think of a wave,” Andy says. “You want to start off pretty good, let the audience know that you’re here, and maybe take it down a little bit, then build it up and take it over at the end.” But at least one quarter of every work is improvisation. “While we’re doing a tap dance,” Rick explains, “there’s different things Andy’s calling out to signal us into other combinations. It’s different every night. Sort of a page out of the James Brown book.”

Neither brother feels he is pushing tap in a new direction. “A lot of the things I’m doing have been done,” Rick says, crediting the likes of Walke
r, Slyde, and Glover with bringing the general public’s attention to tap. And since Ten Foot Five grabbed the public’s attention with their ever-improving performances this year, some dance-community insiders are speculating on what they might be up to next. “There’s something raw about the boys, which we love, but I would like to see them come into their own dance vocabulary. That’s what the genre is about,” says Van Wieren.

In fact, Rick will venture more boldly into the concert-dance world through a collaborative piece to be performed at “Flying Feats,” the concert series presented this month by Flying Foot Forum at the Southern Theater. FFF, says founder and artistic director Joe Chvala, is all about “encouraging people with percussive-dance technique to use it in a way that tells stories, creates characters, explores ideas,” an arena into which the Auslands haven’t yet ventured. Chvala teamed Rick with FFF veteran Joe Spencer and percussionist Peter O’Gorman from the “visual percussion” group Crash to collaborate on a new piece. “I wanted to put these three really different personalities together and see what they’d come up with.”

Chvala, who has known the Auslands for more than a decade, says what Ten Foot Five is offering currently is “pretty fantastic. It’s a great style of tap that brings people together to feel a sense of joy and wonder. Anything that can do that is pretty valuable.” From Rick Ausland’s point of view, dancing and drumming is his best form of communication. “We’ve all said certain words, but to put them into a poem that you’ve written, it’s your expression, even though you didn’t make up any of the words. We have a gift of expression through rhythm. And in some deep-rooted sense, people understand what that language is.”

Hence audiences’ extremely un-Minnesotan propensity to holler out during performances, leap to their feet, and bang on buckets that the Ten Foot Fivers pass out at the end of their show. “I appreciate that people dig it. That’s what allows us to keep doing it,” Rick says. “People talk about how they feel like they were taken away to some other place for an hour, they got away from whatever was on their mind that was bringing them down, and that’s pretty cool.”

On the streets of Minneapolis, however, the Auslands sometimes encounter people who aren’t so appreciative of their drumming. “You get people who think you’re a dirty street rat, but that’s just the resistance and you’ve got to banish that,” Andy says. “We’re being of service. Because drumming has a provocative power. It gets inside your soul. It makes people dance from the inside out. It’s energy that, if you’re walking around stewing in your head, it snaps you out of it. It’s a transformation.”






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