They've Got the Beat
The men and women of Stomp find life's rhythms in a garbage can.
By Jesse Fox Mayshark
MARCH 16, 1998: I remember when I first learned how to play a rock 'n' roll beat. I was a socially awkward 9th-grader, the kind who would go to school dances and stand around the DJ's speakers, tapping my feet and knowing every song but never actually dancing. My parents bought me a drum set after six months of lessons on a snare drum had convinced them they couldn't talk me into taking up the hammer dulcimer instead. My drum teacher, a quiet young guy named Danny who eventually scrapped his private lesson business and joined the seminary, sat me down at the Pearl drums and Zildjian cymbals and unlocked one of the secrets of the universe: the backbeat.
When Danny left that day, I stayed there on the drum stool, counting "1-2-3-4" in my head, my right foot thumping the kick drum on the 1 and 3, left hand tapping the snare on the 2 and 4, right hand keeping unsteady eighth notes on the high hat. And I felt it. After months of paradiddles, flams, five-stroke rolls, and other bits of percussive grunt work, I had finally found what I was looking for. Huey Lewis was on the radio in those days singing about "the heart of rock 'n' roll," and this was it. One-TWO-three-FOUR. Boom-chick-boom-chick. Even my junior-high-school sister, whose general approach to everything at the time was a kind of defensive disdain, stuck her head into my bedroom and said, "That sounds pretty good."
I got the same feeling of discovery the first time I saw Stomp.
I knew the hype about the dance troupe. I'd seen them banging around on TV, smashing garbage can lids together and whatnot. I was ready to be entertained. But I wasn't ready for the simple, direct resonance of the performance, the way the rhythms of the group on stagewhether they came from giant racks of industrial drums or the snap of cigarette lightersbecame the rhythms of the crowd.
It's a response Coralissa Gines has seen around the world in her two years as a Stomper (Stompist? Stomperina?). "We have a rhythm," Gines says, speaking through a slight cold from a Quality Inn somewhere in Savannah, Ga. "As corny as it sounds, we have a rhythm in our heart, our body has a rhythm...It's primitive, is that the word I want to use? It's in us. It's in us already, and when you bring it out on stage, it makes sense."
But if that makes Stomp sound like some touchy-feely spiritual thing, guess again. This isn't Yanni (and don't we wish someone would smack him with a garbage can lid?). The eight-member troupe, settling in for a six-day run this week at the Civic Auditorium, is mostly lighthearted, imaginative, sweaty fun.
Stomp started in England, of all places, which seems weird if all you know of the UK is tea and stiff upper lips. (Part of what makes the film The Full Monty funny is the instinctive incongruity of working-class Brits trying to get funky.) But if you consider that the land of bad teeth and good beer is also the incubator of acid house, techno, drum 'n' bass, jungle, and every other badly-named bottom-heavy dance phenomenon of the past 10 years, Stomp makes a little more sense.
It's the creation of Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, friends who have worked together since 1981 in everything from pop bands to street comedy to large-scale staged events (including floating a drum orchestra on a pontoon boat through Glasgow). They premiered Stomp at the legendary Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in 1991, winning rave reviews and triggering a three-year international tour. There are now five Stomp companies, two of them touring the US, one based in New York City, one in London, and one touring Europe.
It's easier to talk about Stomp than describe it. Essentially, the show is a series of routines that are part dance, part pantomime, and part modern tribal gathering. The music, or whatever you want to call it, is produced with all kinds of unlikely objectsbrooms, newspapers, and, yes, kitchen sinks. The routines usually start with some simple rhythm and build into stunningly complex syncopation, with timing so precise that anyone who missed a sixteenth note would gum it up.
Part of the pleasure is in the sheer audacity, especially in some of the trademark climactic sequences (involving mid-air drumming and dustbin battles). But much of it comes from a shock of familiarity.
"Even when you go to Korea or go to Brazil, people understand it, because people do that," Gines says. "They tap their fingers or they play with their pensthey do incessant tapping. Everybody's done that at one point, made music with a nonmusical object."
Gines auditioned for the group on a whim, accompanying a friend to try-outs in Miami. In classic show biz style, her friend didn't get a part, but Gines did. At that point, the young dancer, whose past work included Melrose Place and some music videos, had not actually seen Stomp. When she did, and she realized the show relied as much on percussion as choreography, she got nervous.
"I was like, I can't do this, why did they hire me?" says the Los Angeles native, who had never played drums. Her training, she says, "was the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. Being a dancer, you dance to the music. In Stomp, you're playing the music you dance to. It's a whole different world."
She also had to incorporate the show's elements of acting. There's no dialogue, but each of the eight cast members still cultivates a stage personacocky, shy, goofy, angrythat carries through the performance.
"Your stage persona is you," Gines insists. "You don't try to be something you're not. You bring yourself and the different sides of you out on stage...It's not always the same. I may not always want to be that funny person or that angry person or whatever. And that's great."
The cast brings diverse backgrounds to the show, from Hawaiian singer and dancer Andres Fernandez to rapper/dancer Quami "Mista Q" Adams, who has worked with Bobby Brown and other R&B performers. Anthony Johnson is a former member of the cult funk-rock outfit 24-7SPYZ, and Michael Bove used to be the drummer for a rock band called Big Hunk O'Cheese. "The drummers teach the dancers how to drum, and the dancers teach the drummers how to dance," Gines says.
Each of the eight also has clearly defined roles within the routines. After playing the same ones for two years, Gines is now training for another role, one more responsible for the music end of the show. And the show itself has evolved, she says. Audiences who saw Stomp on its last two visits to town will see three brand-new routines mixed in with the old favorites.
Even so, three visits to Knoxville in four years is more than most touring companies could hope to make profitable. To explain the ongoing popularity, Gines once again turns to the show's universality.
"A lot of people don't know why they like it. It's so subconscious," she says. "There's been times there have been deaf people in the audience, and I think that's cool. The rhythm of the music, they can feel that and see us talking with our eyes and our body language...I'm sure that's how we started thousands of years ago when there was no language."
Probably. I don't have a drum set anymoreI sold it two years ago to the parents of a 12-year-old boy who had begged for one for Christmasbut that doesn't mean I don't drum. On my desk, I play along to a ticking office clock; at stoplights, I tap on the steering wheel to the rhythm of the clicking turn signal; in the kitchen, there's a counter with great resonance for hammering out "Wipe Out" or some James Brown beat. And when I do that now, I think of the brooms, barrels, Zippos, and household appliances of Stomp.
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