The Birmingham Ballet will welcome some extra-special performers on stage this fall. The Mutt-cracker is a reimagining of the classic 19th-century ballet, The Nutcracker. Featuring pirouetting pups alongside the regular cast, the highly choreographed “paw-formance” is a sight to behold.
The tale begins with a little girl who falls asleep with her Nutcracker doll on the couch on Christmas Eve. The dreamy sequence that follows involves a battle with an army of mice and an adventure to the Land of Sweets to meet the Sugar Plum Fairy. Only this time, Fido tags along. We had the opportunity to interview Cindy Free, the Director at the Birmingham Ballet, to find out what it takes to put on a show with a four-legged cast.
How does this production differ from the original?
The Mutt-cracker is essentially Birmingham Ballet's Nutcracker with the addition of dogs. They are featured throughout the ballet, and they dance alongside the two-legged performers.
Where did the idea come from?
One of my dancers (who knows I love dogs) showed me a cute picture of a ballerina with a dog in her lap and the caption "Mutt-cracker." I wanted to know what they were doing, so I started researching and found that several ballet companies were walking dogs on leash in the opening scenes of their Nutcracker productions. I liked that idea, but I wanted to take it several steps further--to actually have the dogs dance.
How does the audition process work?
The dogs come into the audition room with their owners. They all sit in a circle on the edges of the room. Nutcracker music is playing. One at a time, the owners introduce their dogs to our Canine Choreographer, Anne-Marie Mitchell, and present any skills they have learned. Then, Anne-Marie works with the pup to see if he will work with someone other than his owner.
Do the canine cast need to have natural rhythm to join the production?
Some dogs have many skills ... some have none. They are all wonderful! We call the ones who don't have skills "eye candy" because people enjoy seeing them regardless.
How hard is it to work with canine performers?
This year, many of our four-legged stars are Hand in Paw therapy dogs and one is a search and rescue dog. We also have several cast members who take lessons or compete in agility training. Each season, Anne-Marie and I discuss my vision for how the scenes and choreography should look. Then, Anne-Marie works with the dogs and their owners as well as the dancers to discover the possibilities and pull off the canine choreography. It's a bit like working with children--you can prepare them, but you never know for sure what will happen during a performance.
Are you the only company to put on a show like this?
To my knowledge, no one else has featured dogs "dancing" throughout the show in this way.
Are there plans to try other ballets, perhaps Dog Quixote?
Lol! No ... Mutt-cracker is enough!
The Mutt-cracker will be performed on Friday, November 29 at the Alabama Theatre. For tickets and more information, check out the Birmingham Ballet Website. If you're looking for a pet-friendly room for your sugar pug fairy after the show, La Quinta Inn & Suites Birmingham Homewood is a short drive from the theater.