The timeless holiday classic “The Nutcracker” doesn’t have any dialog — and that’s just fine by Gracie the Sugar Plum Fairy, Bailey the Nutcracker Prince, Sam the Mouse King and Lily, the little looker who’s playing the role of Clara.
Lily is a pug, Sam is a golden retriever, Bailey is a Shih Tzu and Gracie is a Sheltie. Their fellow thespians include a border collie, a cocker spaniel, a Maltese and a Chihuahua, and when they join tail-wagging forces for their canine production of “The Nutcracker,” the crowds go wild.
“It’s a riot!” said Penny Brcic, 58, whose dog Gracie landed the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy this year. “The audience goes crazy. … A lot of the humor behind it is that these aren’t circus dogs. They’re just our pets.”
Some might call them pets with a higher purpose. The 29 dogs starring in the Chicago-area, canine-centric version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet are highly trained and obedient because they all work as therapy dogs. When they aren’t donning colorful costumes and rehearsing elaborate “Nutcracker” scenes, they visit wounded veterans, dementia patients, terminally ill children and kids with learning disabilities and provide them with affectionate support. The dogs have a special knack for drawing out the sullen, the angry or the disoriented, getting them to speak, walk or smile for the first time in weeks.
“Therapy dogs can reach people and comfort people in a way that humans sometimes can’t,” said Becky Jankowski, 55, program coordinator for the PAWSitive Therapy Troupe and the mastermind behind the canine “Nutcracker” production. “Psychiatrists, nurses, teachers — they can talk, talk, talk and not get through to the child or the patient. But dogs can open communication channels that never existed.”
The power of that human-animal connection is what led to the creation of the first canine “Nutcracker” back in 2000. Jankowski thought it could be a fun way to bring some holiday cheer to sick kids living with their families at a Ronald McDonald House.
“Our very first ‘Nutcracker’ was in a nurses’ station seating area and it was way too crowded — the nursing staff was appalled!” Jankowski recalled.
In 2001, Jankowski and other volunteer therapy-dog owners performed the production at three locations: the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital, a senior center and a retirement center for nuns. The production kept growing each year and skyrocketing in popularity in the Chicago area.
By 2004, the PAWSitive Therapy Troupe had its own training center for dogs and the show became a fundraiser for the group, with tickets sold for $5 each.
“We sold 800 tickets in about a couple hours. We had lines down the street!” Jankowski said.
Then came a necessary hiatus. Stars of the production were getting older, and a few beloved canines died. Jankowski and other volunteers had grown dog tired as well; it takes them about 1,000 hours to prepare for the big show.
Six years later, they felt ready for a comeback. They staged “The Nutcracker” in 2010 at two middle school gymnasiums that held hundreds of people. All showings sold out quickly and were smash hits — but all was not blissful in the Land of Sweets. A loud hiss of static plagued the sound system at one gym, spooking a golden retriever. The humans behind the production battled exhaustion as well — so they took another year off in 2011.
This year, though, the team is back and ready for a howling good time. They’ll put on three separate shows on Nov. 17 and 18 at a middle school gym in Downers Grove, Ill.
“It’s still a lot of work, but this year it’s not quite as bad,” Jankowski said. “We know what we’re doing, we have all of our costumes, we have our sets. It’s mostly a matter of remembering where we all need to be.”
While the dogs are definitely the stars of the show, they usually appear on stage with their human handlers, who range in age from their late 20s to their late 70s. A narrator — Penny Brcic — deftly interjects a tiny bit of commentary when needed to clarify the story line. The canine “Nutcracker” also features a number of wildly popular off-leash solo performances; the moment when the dog playing the sinister Mouse King dramatically lies down and plays dead tends to make audiences go bonkers.
The dogs are trained with positive reinforcement in the form of click sounds followed by treats.
“Lots and lots of treats, and lots and lots of praise!” Jankowski said. “After the show we open it up and the whole crowd can pet the dogs. And there are photo ops: Dogs have their costumes on, and kids can have their pictures taken with them.”
Some “Nutcracker” dogs consistently amaze not just the strangers in the audience but their owners. Gracie, the Sheltie playing the Sugar Plum Fairy this year, can no longer hear at the age of 12.
“Even so, she does all this through hand signals and the communication we have,” Brcic said. “It’s really not that hard for her. She’s smart and good lookin’!”
~ Courtesy of Today
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