A group in Downers Grove, Illinois, sold 1,200 tickets in just two hours to its December 5 and 6 performances of The Nutcracker, which was no small feat when you consider how many holiday shows compete for ticket sales this time of year. But this production had an advantage over the others: Its dancers were cuter.
No seriously, they were.
They also had more feet and more fur than any other dancers performing the holiday classic, because this Nutcracker did not feature your typical cast — it starred twirling and leaping canines.
That’s right, PAWSitive Therapy Troupe’s The Canine Nutcracker returned to the stage for its eighth season, and it was just as wildly popular as ever. With months of rehearsals under their belts (and collars) and custom-designed sets and costumes, performers wowed audience members — and it all started with an idea Becky Jankowski had in 1999.
As the nonprofit’s founder, Jankowski was looking for a special way to entertain the people her organization serves.
“The PAWSitive Therapy Troupe is an all-volunteer 501c3 charitable organization dedicated to sharing our registered Pet Partner therapy dogs with individuals in health care facilities and schools,” she explained. “Originally formed as the Pets for Vets program at Hines V.A. in 1997, we have since expanded to include many other locations and missions. Through programs that bring dogs to visit patients in the hospital and read with children at school, we are able to bring comfort, support, and encouragement through the healing power of the human-animal bond.”
Jankowski first had the idea to put on a canine version of the holiday classic back in 1999, when she saw the new sport of canine freestyle dancing.
“I realized that canine freestyle demonstrations would be a great way for our therapy dogs to entertain the patients at the health care facilities that we visited,” she said, “So in 2000, we performed our first show at the Ronald McDonald Children’s Hospital at Loyola Medical Center in Maywood.”
For the first several years, The Canine Nutcracker shows were performed only for the patients of the health care facilities they serve. But as any nonprofit can attest to, the costs of running an organization add up. So in 2002, Jankowski decided to open the show to the public to raise the funds the organization needed for expenses, from training programs to office supplies, and the results were nothing less than astounding.
“The first time we sold tickets to the public was in 2002, and we sold more than 1,000 tickets in just two hours,” she said. “We could not believe people were actually waiting in line in the cold — it was amazing! Our 2010 and 2012 shows also sold out very quickly: In 2010 selling 2,000 tickets to four performances and in 2012 selling almost 1,800 tickets to three performances.”
It comes as no surprise that the show does so well because Jankowski and her team of volunteers pour their hearts and souls into the performances each year. With a cast that includes 34 dogs and 31 humans, rehearsals start as early as February!
“We begin preparing for a December holiday show usually by February or March,” she said. “We meet initially to assign roles for all of the dances, and by mid-summer we are meeting to rehearse our group dances. Early rehearsals for the group dances involve only the humans because they are the ones who need to know where they are going, but by October, we begin to rehearse with the dogs as well. Throughout October and November, we meet twice a month, each time running through the entire show.”
Despite the many months of training, Jankowski and the rest of her troupe understand that sometimes the dogs (like people) don’t want to do what they have rehearsed, and so they plan ahead for it.
“The key to doing canine freestyle routines is to keep the music no longer than two to three minutes,” she realized. “That meant listening to the Tchaikovsky music over and over again to figure out what portions of each music number I would use.”
And her effort showed in the way that the dogs and their human partners danced across the stage to the beat. In one scene, two dogs circled their humans in almost total unison, and in another, dogs cast as acrobatic tumblers perched on boxes as if they had been trained to do so for years. Audience members didn’t dare look away, because if they did, they might have missed the cute little Shih Tzu leaping over the Golden Retriever!
And as any ballet enthusiast can attest, though, there’s more to a good performance than just good dancing, and The Canine Nutcracker was no exception. With Jankowski’s sister Wendy Steward graciously volunteering her interior design and architectural skills, the cast was able to showcase their talents amidst a beautifully designed set complete with a full-sized Christmas tree and replica of an 1800s’ bedroom.
Not to be outdone by the set, the dog’s furry little bodies were clothed in a variety of detailed custom costumes, including tutus, vests, hats, mouse outfits, and more, all designed by several troupe members. The dress Mother Ginger wore was an astonishing four-feet wide, and from beneath it emerged her furry little children. And the cheddar hats used to distract the Mouse King were a laugh for the entire family!
Yet even though production’s goal is to give the audience what they want, the human performers remain loyal to the ones who are loyal to them; and as any dog owner can understand, that means that despite there being a crowd full of people with all eyes on them, they keep their eyes on their dogs.
“It is important to remember that first and foremost, these therapy dogs are our beloved pets and NOT trained circus dogs,” Jankowski stressed. “Although as therapy dogs, our dogs have been exposed to a multitude of sights and sounds that the average dog would never see, they are still dogs, and they can still become stressed at the sight of hundreds of people all clapping and cheering just a few feet away. If that happens (and we have had several dogs experience some stage fright, at least momentarily), we just improvise our dances a bit. Our dogs’ well-being is our No. 1 priority at all times.”
She added, “In fact, one year my dog Bonnie was supposed to spin and circle around me in the opening number, but once she got a good look at just how many people were out there, she froze. So instead of trying to get her to spin and go around me, I did the spin myself and circled around her. It gave her enough time to refocus on me, and we were able to continue with the rest of the dance as we had practiced it. I don’t think the audience ever noticed — it looked like we had planned it that way all along!”
Such improvisation continues to be part of the charm and excitement that sets The Canine Nutcracker apart from a ballet performed in excessive rerun since 1892. When you add that every ticket and DVD sale goes directly to sponsor PAWSitivity Therapy Troupe’s efforts, it’s no wonder that people can barely get a hand (or paw) on a ticket before they sell out.
If you would like to support the PAWSitive Therapy Troupe and see this unique, one-of-a-kind (and totally adorable) show, you can order a copy of The Canine Nutcracker on DVD through the organization’s website. You can also follow the group on Facebook.
Editor’s note: A special thank you to Reel Paws for shooting video of “The Canine Nutcracker” for Dogster.
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About the author: Eden Strong is a quirky young woman with a love for most animals with fur. Read her blog, It Is Not My Shame to Bear.