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Dogs On Stage

Ball Crazy Ballet: a Behind-the-Scenes Look at Alberta Ballet’s “Phi”

With only a few minutes to go, Isabella is contemplating the challenge ahead. How will she gracefully navigate the stage with two exuberant German Shepherds, amidst fast-moving ballet dancers, all before a live audience of over 2000 people? Her nerves are hard to suppress. She can hear her heart bouncing loudly. In the same room, two German Shepherd Dogs do not seem to have a care in the world. Azelle and Benny are dozing at her feet. Isabella is not a ballet dancer; she is the President of the K9Force Dog Club.

The date is March 10, 2022, and the place is the Jubilee Auditorium. Alberta Ballet is set to premiere “Phi”. Artistic Director Jean Grand-Maître’s final contemporary sci-fi ballet was inspired by the iconic music of David Bowie. The heavy beat in Bowie’s song “I’m Afraid of Americans” combined with flashing strobe lights expresses an atmosphere of terror. Jean explains: “To increase the tension, I taught having trained police dogs with their handler hidden in a costume would make the audience cringe even more and perhaps match the violence in Bowie’s music.”

Jean visited the K9Force Dog Club in November 2021 to discuss his plans of having some serious dogs on stage. Isabella hesitated at first, fearing that any mishap in front of so many people would become national news. Yet, Jean’s enthusiasm and artistic perspective won her over. Three dogs were selected to perform in pairs: Atilla, Azelle, and Benny. The three siblings are accomplished sport dogs with numerous IGP titles, but neither of them did have any previous stage experience.

The ballet dancers were excited to work with their new canine cast members. The dogs inquisitively looked around whilst the dancers moved around them. Well-trained to follow their handler, the dogs’ calm presence did not quite match with the sought-after ‘ready to charge’ attitude. What better magic than Ball Crazy Ballet? Fitted with a ball on each wrist, the dancers swirled around the dogs. Each ball shown provided an excellent invitation for Atilla, Azelle and Benny to play, jump and bark. Nothing new for these dogs. Ball play is how they are rewarded in training.

The stage bell rings, and Isabella makes her way up to the big stage of the Jubilee. The music is loud, the lights are flashing, the dancers are flying across the stage. Azelle and Benny are ready to play. Then... one of the dancers comes too close to Azelle. The dog doesn’t think twice and grasps a ball from the dancer’s wrist. On command Azelle drops the ball and Isabella quickly kicks it out of the way. That’s a nice game! Two German Shepards pull hard on their leashes, feeding of each other’s energy to fetch the rolling ball. Isabella manages to regain control. She keeps the pair moving into the right direction of the stage. After all, the show must go on. The audience is in awe of the impressive presence of the dogs so well into their act. Not quite what Isabella had expected of her first performance. A sigh of relieve escapes her back in the dressing room.

Isabella recounts that the dogs knew exactly what was expected of them, right from the moment the car pulled into the theatre parking lot to the down time we all enjoyed together in their dressing room. Their backstage routine, six minutes of intricate choreography and timely exits became second nature. Not afraid of all that was brought on stage, the dogs loved the experience and all the attention they received. Backstage before the performance, the dancers would spend that time petting and comforting the dogs. By the fourth show, they had learned whom of the dancers had balls attached to their wrists. Knowing they would get to play with the balls after every exit, these became their favourite new friends.

The warmth and inclusivity of the entire performance and support team fostered lasting connections between dancers, dogs and their handler, even after the final curtain fell. Isabella reminisces: “We rehearsed together for about twelve hours, and I always felt comfortable. We had our own dressing room. The dancers, the stage crew, the ladies from the dressing room - they were all fantastic people. Everyone treated the dogs with respect and care. After several weeks of working together, we still keep in touch.”

Artistic Director Jean was impressed by how well the dogs supported the dancers on the big stage. Playing bad with the SWAT team on stage first, then only 14 minutes later they needed to be ready for their choreographed reverence. If not already, Atilla, Azelle and Benny ‘sitting pretty’ surely won the audience’s hearts. Jean looks back: “I think we learned a lot more about working dogs and what they can actually do. We learned to respect their courage... which is why the responsibility we have towards them is so enormous. I have never seen dogs becoming actual protagonists who move the narrative forward before. It was a huge success! I think it may have even been the first-time fierce dogs were included in a ballet performance."


K9Force (2024, February). Dogs On Stage.

© K9Force WDC 2023. For permission to reproduce any article in this blog, contact

Image courtesy of Paul McGrath


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