When American Ballet Theatre performs Giselle, the entrance of the royal hunting party in the first act always sets the audience to murmuring. The courtiers are sumptuously garbed, the Prince of Courland glitters with authority, and Bathilde is a vision in voluminous velvet. What really sets the house astir, however, is the pair of Borzoi (Russian wolfhounds) accompanying them. Although aloof, imperially slim, with a bloodline as pure as that of any noble onstage, the dogs have only a cameo role, and are promptly hustled off to prevent their upstaging the mime and the Peasant Pas de Deux.
To see dogs casually moving among dancers with the confident assurance of superstars, you must visit ABT's headquarters on lower Broadway. At presstime, the dancers and the staff owned 24 dogs, and it's not unusual to find half a dozen or so patrolling the corridors or monitoring classes with an aplomb only those at the center of attention possess.
The company's 19 cats rarely put in an appearance. A cat, by its nature, is a homebody, accustomed to long afternoon naps. A hub of such incessant activity as a ballet studio holds little appeal‹especially one teeming with small dogs. While no cats were available for an interview, anecdotes were easy to come by. Principal Dancers Gillian Murphy and Ethan Stiefel's feline, Selah, for instance, is infamous for her reaction to phone calls when home alone: She leaps atop the answering machine and‹accidentally or intentionally‹pushes the button that abruptly cuts off the caller. Stiefel loyally insists she is intrigued by the voice, not bored by the message.
Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie keeps a photo of his schnauzer, Frits, on his desk but leaves him at home in upstate New York. Executive Director Rachel Moore avoids taking a stand on what is potentially a divisive issue: She considers herself a cat person and a dog person, now that Lily, an eight-month-old yellow Labrador, has joined her 17-year-old cats, Magpie and Audrey. "Arthritis has slowed Audrey down," Moore says, "but Magpie still comes running down the stairs to greet me when I return home. They tend to dominate Lily, so I bring her to the office to mingle with her own kind."
She will not allow any disruption of classes or rehearsals, but Moore is not annoyed by dogs coming and going at will, checking out her office like they own the place and trotting off when they lose interest: "I danced with this company in the '80s. I know what comfort pets can be on a long and lonely tour; they can relieve the high stress we're often under in this profession." The dogs cause surprisingly little disturbance‹except for corps dancer Melissa Thomas's pug, Oprah; her mercurial nature is at odds with the term "pugnacious." Thomas says, "She's over three years old but she cuts up like a puppy." (Oprah obliged by licking her face.)
Principal Marcelo Gomes's three-year-old dachshund, Lua, may occasionally bark in time to the class pianist but is generally content to wait until her master is free and can gather her up in his arms. "I try to speak to her only in English," Gomes says (instead of the Portugese of his native Brazil). "If I knew any German, I might try that."
Thailand-born Sarawanee Tanatanit admits that her dog, Milo, is not as disciplined as Lua. When you enter a classroom where he is on duty, Milo comes pattering across the floor with such alacrity that you fear you're confronting an attack Chihuahua‹a long-haired one at that‹but he's only eager to make your acquaintance. "I often have to tie him up," Tanatanit sighs. Corps member Sarah Smith concedes that her Pomeranian, Savannah, can also be "disruptive" when bored with her toy, Mister Giraffe; mischief is written on her bright-eyed, foxy features peeking out from a sunburst of orange fur.
Dancers visiting massage therapist Olinda Cedeno can expect a tongue facial from her brindle dachshund, Jimi, once they are stretched out prone with their heads held in position past the end of the table and their faces exposed. Stephanie Gasiorowski, officially the associate company manager, gladly moonlights as the unofficial dog handler to keep these tiny jokers in line. When more professional attention is required, veterinarian Jennifer Chaitman, an avid company supporter, can always be counted upon.
Not surprisingly, dogs owned by the office staff tend to be less kinetic. Marianne Vanaselja's black Lab, Idaho‹she calls him "my granddog"‹didn't bestir himself when a stranger appeared in the doorway of the accounting department; one sidewise glance was all the occasion demanded. Milton, the French bulldog owned by Mary Jo Ziesel, hates walking so much that Ziesel, director of education and training, must push him around in an open-air stroller. "He runs only to get into yellow cabs," she says. "He looks like he's perpetually panting, but that's because his tongue's too big for his mouth." Roxy, the cocker spaniel owned by Dennis Walters, director of educational outreach, does have an aggressive streak. "I think she feels protective of me," says Walters. "Since I'm six-foot-seven, I haven't had to call on her yet."
Casey is wardrobe Supervisor Bruce Horowitz's fourth schipperke, black, stocky, tailless dogs with thick coats bred to live on boats (hence the Flemish for "skipper") and control rats. "A drowned mouse in his water bowl was the only indication I've seen of that function," Horowitz says. He remembers when large dogs were the rule at ABT and a potential bother when booking hotel rooms on tour. "Now we all own small dogs," he says.
But what about the wolfhounds in Giselle? "Oh, we rent them," he replies. "They're not company."
Harris Green is an editor at Macfadden Performing Arts.