In Next Wave’s Canine Choreography, Robert Reid discovers that untrained dogs are just…untrained dogs
How is it possible to make a show so very full of dogs so very hard to watch?
A carpet of fake grass and a white picket fence box in the performance space. It reminds me of the Royal Melbourne Show and travelling petting zoos. Off to one side is an announcer speaking into a microphone. I never caught his name and I didn’t see any programs on my way in so I can’t tell you who it was.
I can’t quite make out most of what he says over the noise of the pre-show audience. It’s possible I missed important information during this part. At the back is a large flat-screen TV. They’ve quickly relocated from the outdoor venue to this space at the Collingwood Arts Precinct, so there is a rushed quality in the air. It’s possible I’m imagining that.
In Canine Choreography, Danielle Reynolds explores the world of Dances with Dogs, a niche sport that has been popular with some pet owners since the 90s. It’s a competitive dance contest for dogs and their owners and patently an adorable world to explore, although the presentation of Reynolds’ findings was underwhelming.
We’re greeted at the door. We sit chatting. There’s a casual atmosphere that will carry through under the whole of the show. The announcer tells us that the show is beginning and asks if we’d like to meet some dog trainers. The audience is enthusiastically affirmative.
The screen plays an interview with two Dances with Dogs veterans. It’s followed by an interview with the first performer of the evening (Arlo Mailing) about how she thinks her performance will go.
I still don’t really know what to expect, either because the event hasn’t told us yet or our announcer explained it but the muffled sound system and the buzz of still-chatting audience made me miss it. Either way, I’m realising now the premise of the show is less a look at the relationship between dogs and their owners in the context of performance (ie Dances with Dogs) and more “What if we took untrained dogs and their owners and got them to try and recreate a Dances with Dogs floor routine?”
The dogs obviously have no idea what’s going on. Some are playful, some are worried about the strange environment and people and wait at the gate to leave the space. They watch their owners with the bemused nonchalance only an incredulous dog can manifest.
The ones doing tricks here are the humans.
The actual routine they’re emulating plays along behind on the screen behind them. The owners emulate the routines as well as they can. The dogs do whatever they like.
Is this going to be whole show?
Yes. Yes, it is.
The contrast between the trained performers on the video and those in front of us on the floor reminds me, briefly, of Lucy Guerin’s Untrained. There we saw two dancers at the peak of their fitness perform movements and routines that are emulated (to the best of their ability) by two people with little to no dance experience. We saw the tension between the possible and the impossible, the differences between the trained and the untrained body, opening the different beauties of discipline and truthfulness. The heaviness of the untrained bodies, the stiffness of the limbs, was poignant. Real.
Canine Choreography, on the other hand, is well prefaced early on by trainers in the first video. Responding to the question, “will it be possible for these dogs to do these routines with no training?” the trainers laugh and say “of course not!” They suggest that this is a stupid question. I’m inclined to agree, and to add that it’s not the most enlightening premise for a show.
It’s all in fun, naturally. No one is expecting Ibsen or Stoppard. But the show is, pun a little intended, rough. Little thought seems to have been given to the staging, and surprisingly little effort has been put into the choreography for a show called Canine Choreography. I found myself struggling to understand what to take away from this show. That dogs are cute? That dogs which have been trained are better at doing routines than dogs that haven’t?
It all feels like something that sounded like a good idea when it was floated but that everyone forgot about until the last week, and yet I can’t help but feel it could have been enchanting. Maybe a few rehearsals might have helped.
Maybe I’m missing the point. It doesn’t claim to reach for profundity. The audience was filled with chuckles and awws, although often I couldn’t work out what they were responding to. Sometimes it was because dogs are cute. Sometimes it was because people in real life say things that aren’t poetic, but are instead awkward revelations of their educational background.
There was one errant moment, during the curtain call, when a small dog tried to hump a larger one. This produced some of delighted laughter from the audience. I guess, if that sounds appealing…
Canine Choreography, created by Danielle Reynolds. Collingwood Arts Precinct, Next Wave. Closed.