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The “Muttcracker”

The 2010 edition of The Nutcracker hopes to give a few four legged friends a home for the holidays and beyond

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Dancers trying out for the Fort Wayne Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker probably guessed that something a little out of the ordinary was happening this year when they noticed one of the questions on the audition sheet — “are you allergic to dogs?”

Now, several months later, with the FWB’s The Nutcracker just a few weeks from making its debut on December 3, I run a famous piece of advice for aspiring performers (usually attributed to W.C. Fields) past Executive Director Karen Gibbons-Brown: never share the stage with children or animals.

Gibbons-Brown laughs before pointing out that obviously children — lots of them — have always been a part of a holiday tradition like The Nutcracker. After all, at heart it’s a children’s story…

And for the 2010 edition of The Nutcracker, they’re adding animals, too.

In a collaboration with Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control, the Fort Wayne Ballet will feature two dogs available for adoption in each performance of The Nutcracker. The dogs make their entrance during the famous Christmas party scene at the beginning, walked by their owners — well, their stage owners, to be exact — through the scene.

The dogs will be out in the lobby during intermission, and folks from Fort Wayne Animal Care & Control will be on hand to answer any questions and provide information on adopting these or any other animals.

The Fort Wayne Ballet is calling it, unofficially, “the Muttcracker” (though there’s no word on how many “my dogs are barking” jokes are allowed during rehearsal).

Gibbons-Brown got the idea during a rehearsal for The Nutcracker a couple years ago. “We’re always trying to do something different for The Nutcracker,” she says. “We added snow in the audience a few years ago, and I really liked that, and one of my students said ‘Ms Karen, if you could put your dogs in the performance, you’d do that,’ and I said ‘you’re right, I would.’”

“You’re right” soon blossomed into “why not?” Gibbons-Brown and her family have three adopted dogs of their own, and animal adoption is something of a cause for her. It also fits into part of what the Fort Wayne Ballet does and tries to teach its students. “We always try to get our young people to understand ‘servant leadership’, that you don’t just think about yourself, you think about your community and the others around you,” Gibbons-Brown says. “We do coat, mitt and hand drive for a particular public school we’ve adopted, we do book drives, we do stuffed animal drives with the police force, and this is something we do for our four-legged friends.”

Plus, The Nutcracker is all about creating the holiday spirit and a family atmosphere — what better represents unconditional love and goodwill than a friendly dog?

Which isn’t to say Gibbons-Brown didn’t get a few raised eyebrows when she initially proposed the idea. She thought it through before “blurting it out,” as she says, but still… “They thought I was kidding,” she laughs. “ ‘Yeah, right, here she goes again. Now, how exactly do you see that working, Karen?’”

How it works is pretty simple: supervisors from Animal Care & Control take Fido to the side of the stage and pass him to a costumed dog walker, who takes him through the party. Someone from AC&C meets them on the other side of the stage, and takes the dog through the back, to the lobby, before the flashpots and cannons and belligerent mice show up.

The goal is to have two different dogs for every performance — one walked, one carried. The audience can meet the dogs in the lobby during intermission, and Animal Care & Control will be there to talk to you about adopting a “Muttcracker” star, or any other animal. In fact, you can even begin the adoption process right there.

Of course, every precaution has been taken to ensure the dancers and the dogs are safe. The dogs in The Nutcracker will have gone through a careful screening process before they’re chosen to go on stage. Alison Miller, the Adoption Supervisor for Animal Care & Control, says that all their animals go through a behavioral evaluation called the S.A.F.E.R. test (Safety Assessment for Evaluation Rehoming) before entering AC&C’s adoption program. “It tells us a little bit about their personality,” she says. “Some are more shy and reserved, which doesn’t make them bad pets, but they might not react well to an event like this.”

Indeed, as even non-pet owners can tell you, dogs do indeed have personalities. “Taking dogs out in the community can be a stressful thing for the dogs, so we pay a little extra attention for dogs we’re taking ‘off-site,’” Miller explains. “It’s can be overstimulating for the dogs, since there’s a lot going on, so we make sure that we bring our most social, our most outgoing dogs to events where there will be lots of people and noises.”

“Hopefully, we’ll bring some puppies. They’re usually really versatile and able to handle stressful situations,” adds Miller. “Some of our adult dogs already have a little training, so they know how to walk on a leash, they know they shouldn’t jump.”

Animal Care & Control also has other animals available for adoption. Gibbons-Brown says that early on, they briefly toyed with the idea of bringing cats and maybe rabbits up on stage, but the idea was soon abandoned. “Other animals tend to stress differently,” she explains.

Despite the slightly skeptical reception to the initial “Muttcracker” idea, Gibbons-Brown knew she was on to something when she explained it at a crowded parent meeting and more than half the room went “awwww…” Once the logistics were figured out, it made sense — the dogs appear in the party scene, the least structured part of The Nutcracker (or it seems that way to the audience), so the dancers were not going to be in any danger of being tripped up by a stage full of bouncing puppies. And it turns out, animals in the ballet aren’t entirely unheard of. Gibbons-Brown was once in a touring production of Giselle that had hunting dogs on stage. “They were Afghan wolfhounds,” she says. “They belonged to one of the dancers, and they were always used in the performances.” And in a particular scene for another ballet — La Fille Mal Guardee — they used a donkey to pull a cart load of people (“No, we didn’t tour with the donkey…” Gibbons-Brown replies to a dim-witted follow up question).

“I think we might have a little trouble keeping the dancers focused,” Gibbons-Brown says of The Nutcracker. “Hopefully, the novelty will wear off.”

Gibbons-Brown reassures ballet afficianados that as always the emphasis is on the production itself. The costumes and settings have been updated, the choreography tweaked, to keep it fresh, just as the Fort Wayne Ballet does every year. “It’s still The Nutcracker we all know and love, with Clara and the Prince and the Land of Sweets,” Gibbons-Brown says. “It’s still very much a ballet — obviously I don’t want us to lose that — but this is just an addition, a way we can give something to the community.”

All performances are held at Arts United Center, 303 East Main Street in downtown Fort Wayne.

Friday, December 3 @ 8 PM (with Fort Wayne Philharmonic and Fort Wayne Children's Choir)
Join the Fort Wayne Ballet for the Opening Night Champagne Reception immediately following the performance. Meet the dancers and enjoy food by Club Soda, champagne and music. Tickets: $10

Saturday, December 4 @ 2:30 PM (matinee performance)
Saturday December 4 @ 8 PM (with Fort Wayne Philharmonic and Fort Wayne Children's Choir)
Sunday, December 5 @ 2:30 PM

Tuesday, December 7 @ 7 PM

Friday, December 10 @ 8 PM
Saturday, December 11 @ 2:30 PM (matinee performance)
Saturday, December 11 @ 8 PM
Sunday, December 12 @ 2:30 PM

Tickets: December 4th & 5th at 8:00pm: Adults $40; Seniors (60+) & Youth (11-18) $35; Children (3-10) $30

All other performances: Adults $27.50; Seniors (60+) $22.50; Youth (11-18) $17.50 – Children (3-10) $13

For ticket information go to www.fortwayneballet.org.
To learn more about the animals that will be up for adoption go to www.FWACC.org or call 260-427-1244.

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