Dancers & Dogs

Dancers & Dogs

On a sunny Saturday, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s dance studios are overflowing with some of the company’s favorite characters. Stretching and warm-ups are happening throughout the hallways. The athleticism is spectacular to watch. It’s a blur of spinning and jumping. Everyone is out of breath and panting. Limber legs are running everywhere—four times more than normal—and very furry.
Written by Deanna Duff | Photography by Tushna Lehman
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s (PNB) canine community participated in a photo event celebrating the connection between dogs and dancers. From PNB’s artistic and executive directors to the dancers, staff and ballet master, many PNBers have canine family members. In fact, some of the company’s biggest fans are four-legged.

“Our jobs can be very emotional. Your body hurts, you’re physically and mentally tired. Sometimes you just sit on the floor exhausted and Bella will come up and lick the tears away. It’s the sweetest thing,” says Carla Körbes, PNB principal dancer. Bella, nicknamed Bella-rina, is Körbes’ 4.5 pound toy fox terrier.

Dogs have an established history as backstage, ballet helpers. New York City’s renowned American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet have long allowed dogs to visit practices and rehearsals. Peter Boal, PNB’s artistic director, was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet during the tenure of choreographer Jerome Robbins. While acclaimed for work such as West Side Story, he was legendary for being a difficult personality.

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“Robbins could be a nightmare, but he went to putty if a dog came into the room. We had a conspiracy going that if he was being really nasty, we’d go find a dog and send it into the studio to bring him back to a good mood,” chuckles Boal.

Boal grew up with dogs and his family now includes Stanly, a 100-pound, incredibly good-natured golden doodle. The dog takes after Boal and his wife, Kelly—also a former ballet dancer. Stanly stands on his hind legs and likes to conga-line dance with the couple and their three children.

Dogs aren’t formerly invited to PNB’s studios due to the onsite children’s classes. However, they are occasional visitors and permanent inspirations.

PNB’s costume shop designed a tutu and tiara costume for Bella. She wears it when performing pirouettes—five in a row is her record. Onstage, the annual “Nutty Nut” Nutcracker—a single-performance, zany, comedic version of the holiday classic—often features a doggie cameo. Stella, the dearly-departed French bulldog, and her successor, Brigitte, always bring the house down. Commemorative buttons bearing their canine mugs are sometimes sold as a fundraiser.

“A dog changes the atmosphere of a rehearsal room for the better,” says Kelly Boal, herself a part-time PNB School faculty member. “They just immediately lift everyone’s moods.”

The Fashion Hounds. Meeka stretches out in the hallway, paws in the air and demanding a tummy rub from William Lin-Yee and Carli Samuelson, both members of PNB’s corps de ballet. She’s a 40-pound Samoyed—a Siberian breed—and arrestingly cute thanks to a teddy-bear face framed by snow-white fur. Meeka possesses star quality. Although only a 10-month-old puppy, she is already a fan of her parent’s work.

“She loves coming here (to PNB),” says Samuelson. “Every time I bring her she can’t stop woofing. She starts before she’s even at the door!”

PNB dogs are far from just bystanders. They have their own sense of community and interests. Some, like Bella and Stanly, hone their dance moves. Others delve into areas such as fashion.

“He sometimes eats my pointe shoes or just plays with them. We don’t have to buy him toys,” laughs Carrie Imler, PNB principal dancer, and companion to Cody Miller, a 63-pound Labrador retriever.

At six-years-old, Cody maintains his youthful, puppy spirit. He vibrates with energy and nudges nearby hands for a quick pet. He maintains a play hard, work hard philosophy and carries his own weight around the household.

“One of his favorite things is getting the newspaper every morning from the driveway. We just open the door and out he goes. It’s the one thing he’s responsible for,” says Imler.

Scout—family to Leah Merchant, PNB corps de ballet—also has a foot fashion fetish. A mischievous mutt, he plays with pointe shoes and leverages socks for playtime. “He baits us with socks,” says Merchant. “He doesn’t eat them. He just grabs them and lures us into the room to play with him.”

The 70-pound rescue dog loves visiting PNB’s costume shop, which made Merchant’s 2013 wedding dress. Scout approved of the results . He happily attended the wedding dressed in his own, doggie bow tie.

Ballet Pedigree
Some dogs were born for the ballet. David Brown, PNB’s executive director, and his wife, Elaine Bauer, former PNB School instructor, worked at Boston Ballet where dachshund siblings Roxanne and Spencer came into their lives.

“One of the company dancers bred Lola, her dachshund,” says Bauer. “We loved Lola, so Roxanne and Spencer were gifts to us. They truly have ballet lineage.”

In 2013, Spencer celebrated his 18th birthday, surviving his sister by two years. Between squirrel chasing and playing with his 40+ toy collection, Spencer accompanies Brown on the occasional, weekend office visit. He is 14 pounds of laid-back, ballet bloodline.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Lily is a 160-pound commanding presence. The Newfoundland resembles a small bear, but her personality is more teddy than grizzly. She is a renowned PNB ambassador.

“She absolutely loves kids,” says Otto Neubert, PNB’s ballet master. “She’s the most beautiful, gentle creature. With that face, she looks like somebody who’s read too many romance novels that had sad endings.”

She is beloved by the younger students and her good looks and personality landed her a spot in a PNB promotional video.

Social outreach and media relations have become her specialities. She sometimes engulfs friends’ hands in her massive paw as if in greeting. She’s a big dog working to create even bigger PNB fans.

Pooches and Pirouettes. Ballet is an outstanding blend of art, aesthetics and athleticism. Dancers are professional athletes who hone their abilities through years of discipline. With a little doggie discipline, some PNB canines may have the potential to follow in their parent’s paw-prints.

Jonathan Porretta, PNB principal dancer, adopted Angelo Stroupe Porretta—a feisty, 15-pound Italian “greyhuahua”—from a shelter. They are two peas in a pod. Just like Porretta, Angelo is full of personality and able to captivate an audience.

“He can jump into my arms straight from the floor. He has an amazing jump,” says Porretta, PNB principal dancer. “Next we’re working on pirouettes.”

Skipper, a Lab short-haired pointer mix, is in active training. His diet includes cucumbers and carrots and his exercise routine involves hiking in Magnuson Park and swimming in Lake Washington.

“He’s visited PNB a few times,” says Maria Chapman, PNB principal dancer. “If he sees me do a jump, he’ll chase after me. I don’t know if he wants to watch me dance, but he does think he’s part of it, like playtime.”

If PNB opens its stages to doggie dancers, Bonnie, a six-year-old chocolate Lab, will be hard to beat. She loves an audience and wiggles and wags her way into everyone’s hearts. Bonnie’s leaps rival Baryshnikov and her focus is unwavering.

“She can jump amazingly high,” says Laura Tisserand, PNB soloist. “She was actually banned from the local dog lounge because she figured out how to jump up and open the door latch with her head. She did it five times and let all the other dogs out!”

A Fetching Romance. Audiences love watching fairy-tale romances unfold from Romeo and Juliet’s tragic love to Cinderella’s happy ending. An equal number of romances start after the curtain falls. In summer 2013, six PNB dancers were married. Four of them were “PNB pairs,” both the bride and groom being dancers who met through PNB. A few canine love affairs have also developed.

Bailey, a long-haired chihuahua, found a soulmate in Bella, Carla Körbes’ petite toy terrier. “He and Bella hang out a lot,” says Brittany Reid, PNB corps de ballet. “I say that Bailey is Bella’s boyfriend. They really like each other and are well matched since they’re both on the smaller side.”

When Reid and Körbes have different rehearsal hours, they take turns dog sitting. When Bailey hosts, he’s quite the romantic. His favorite activities are strolls around Green Lake and brunch at Ballard’s Kiss Café.

Emma Love-Suddarth and Price Suddarth are a PNB love story themselves. The two corps de ballet members married in August 2013. Their union brought together Zuzu, an Italian greyhound-terrier mix, and OP, a puggle. The inseparable canine pals bond over movies. Zuzu is named for the character in It’s a Wonderful Life and OP is short for Optimus Prime in the Transformers movies. Their doggie date nights include popcorn, OP’s preferred snack.

“They pick up each other’s habits, both good and bad,” laughs Love-Suddarth. “Their relationship is unbelievably cute.”

Dog Years Ahead
PNB celebrated its 40th anniversary during the 2012-2013 season. In the intervening decades, it has become a national powerhouse of dance. The community—dancers, staff, audiences and even canine friends—makes it a special place. The talent of the past blazes the way for the future. Principal dancer James Moore and PNB Pilates instructor Kristen Rusnak introduced PNB to their puppy, Bodhi, at the celebratory photo shoot. They adopted the little golden retriever the night before. Moore cradled and kissed him for the cameras as Bodhi good-naturedly lapped up the love. “He’s definitely going to grow up at PNB with everybody around him,” says Rusnak. “There is such a wonderful dog community here.” Welcome to the new generation of Paw-cific Northwest Ballet!

For more in-depth profiles of each pooch, please click here.
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