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2012-12-19 / Columnists

Pets Pets Pets

Tchaikovsky had to be smiling down on Alabama. When the Birmingham Ballet performed “The Mutt-cracker” earlier this month as a benefit for their local shelter, 21 dogs graced the stage, including a quintet of rescued Afghan Hounds, their svelte frames and flowing coats, poetry in motion during “Starlight Angels,” opening scene, Act II.

“Some Afghans should walk across the stage in this year’s Nutcracker” was the suggestion that Martha Powell of Alabaster, AL, a devoted Afghan rescue advocate, made to her Zumba instructor, who just happens to be the mother of Cindy Free, director of the Birmingham Ballet. Cindy, known for creating visually stimulating productions that are “more than dance,” embraced Martha’s idea wholeheartedly.

Auditions for a dog troupe began in October. The Afghans didn’t have to audition. They were perfect as angels because they move so fast. Cindy looked for other dogs that would do tricks with someone other than their owner, and those that could do so with music plus other dogs nearby, for this production would be the complete 105-minute ballet, longer than the familiar “Nutcracker Suite.” Then she cast the pups by their abilities. An athletic Shepherd/Whippet was perfect for the Russian dance. Clara was accompanied by a Golden Retriever playing ball. Drosselmeyer had a black Retriever to match his cape; while the marzipan danced with a mini-Poodle, and a pair of white Shepherds pulled the sleigh, Clydesdale-style.

Breezy in The Mutt-Cracker Breezy in The Mutt-Cracker The Birmingham Ballet is a community arts organization that combines the talents of professional and semiprofessional dancers as well as students and enthusiasts who may have danced in their youth. The dogs added another layer, giving the ballet “family warmth” and opening the arts to an expanded audience of animal lovers. Martha explained, “Cindy wove the dogs seamlessly into the ballet, integrating their antics into the story line from start to finish”. Some dogs had walk-through parts; others jumped through hoops on cue.

Breezy dancing with Drosselmeyer Breezy dancing with Drosselmeyer The first-ever production of “The Mutt-cracker” on Dec. 7 kicked off the Nutcracker weekend. Three performances of the original Tchaikovsky ballet followed. A dollar of each “Mutt-cracker” ticket was donated to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society (GBHS), and at the end, several shelter dogs for adoption were showcased on stage. Coincidentally, Martha is a former president of the GBHS.

The Afghan Hound rescue community is close knit. Martha’s Afghans have a fabulous presence on Facebook and have been featured on the breed rescue calendars. (I edit the calendar profiles.) Her new blonde sisters, Sleet and Breezy, as well as Stormy, another calendar alumnus, were in the ballet alongside their friend Tomi Girl an Afghan rescued after Katrina, and JAG, who resumed his show career when his new owner put him on a healthy diet. All five were fitted for angel wings with elastic under the chin, armpits (do dogs have armpits?) and over the back without knotting their hair, an amazing feat of costuming.

Cindy mused that working with dogs is like working with kids, yet she recalled, “The dogs did so well. They performed better than they rehearsed.” Weeks of practice readied the dogs for a ballet in front of hundreds of people. One dancer who is also a dog trainer coached the canine crew, and cast members like Drosselmeyer worked on perfecting trick repertoires with the pups. Rehearsals, done in staggered groups, progressed from the studio, to the stage, to the dark stage, to the dark stage with music. Martha chuckled, “I got a taste of what the “Toddlers and Tiaras” moms go through. My dogs needed to be brushed before and after each practice.” During a blocking rehearsal, the Poodle tore off around the audience. At dress rehearsal Breezy started singing opera as the curtain went up; but, thankfully, remained silent during the actual performance.

I’m going to let you in on a trade secret: The cast used PupperoniTM so dogs would cooperate during rehearsals; then upped the ante to Beggin StripsTM at dress rehearsal and beyond. For the angel scene, Sleet and Breezy needed to dash side by side as quickly as possible so their blonde tresses would move in an ethereal way. A young ballerina lured them with a tantalizing treat rubber-banded to her wand, whereas Breezy waltzed with Drosselmeyer because he had a bacon strip on his shoulder. It’s funny because we repeat this routine each evening when my Afghans pirouette for their Beggin Strip and slap me with their hairy mitts if I don’t hand it over fast enough. Purina, are you listening? You have the makings of a great commercial staged at Birmingham Ballet.

As the orchestra began to play “The Mutt-cracker” overture, owners like Martha were seated far enough away so the dogs couldn’t see them in the crowd. Martha brought her two groomers who managed the Afghans backstage, brushing them upon entering and exiting. All owners were invited on stage to take a final bow with their dogs.

Cindy Free has been directing “The Nutcracker” at the Birmingham Ballet for the last 17 years. This was her first “Mutt-cracker.” When I asked her if she would consider staging it again next year, she replied, “Definitely. I was touched by how close the dogs were to their owners, and how they could build relationships with the cast. Everyone, including the dogs, had fun.” She added: “So much so, that Tomi Girl now waits at the door for her owner to bring her back to rehearsal.”

For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (631-643- 9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: The shelter has a few sugar plum fairies who would like to dance their way into your heart and home. “Slate,” the declawed, gray cat in the lobby, belongs to the “Anti-Antler Society”. He knows cats are much more sophisticated than silly human photographers. Meanwhile, “Trixie” #12-722, a Pit mix found dragging a chain, is as sweet as her giant candy cane. Also check out “Ace” #2-506, an orange tabby in the cat room. He lets kids carry him around as if he were a rag doll.

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