Not all herding dogs are the same.
Some dogs are “strong eye,” meaning their attention to their charges – a flock of sheep, for example, or the family toddler – is absolute. They can stare at them all day.
Others are “loose eye.” Their gaze can wander.
Both kinds of dogs are part of the herding team of “Doggie Hamlet,” an outdoor performance piece coming to town as part of Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts on Sunday and Monday, June 3 and 4. The 70-minute, choreographed dance at Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park features four dances, a flock of 40 sheep, three border collies and a dog caller.
The dance was created by Ann Carlson, a Los Angeles-based choreographer who calls this a “3D pastoral poem.”
“Some people say, ‘Ann, I didn’t even watch the human performers,’ ” said Carlson. “Of course, everyone watches the dogs and sheep, and the human performers recede into the background. Part of it is inviting people’s consideration of what they are attending to. The meaning is made through what you see.”
Those with “strong eye” may be mesmerized by the movement of dogs and sheep, similar to watching competitive sheepherding contests. Those with “loose eye” may also notice the dancers are echoing canine stalking gestures or the quality of dimming sun as daylight changes to dusk or the natural soundtrack of sheep hooves, dog whistles, and nearly whispered commands.
Carlson spent a few years developing “Doggie Hamlet,” working closely with a sheep farmer in Andover, New York, named Diane Cox. They started touring it about a year and a half ago, mostly in suburban and rural locations. The Philadelphia show, in grassy field with the Center City skyline in plain view, is the first time “Doggie Hamlet” will be performed near an urban core.
“The point of the work is to bridge the divide between rural and urban,” said Carlson. “What you find out is there are not huge divides, but the experience with animals can be at the center point of that divide.”
Despite its name, the piece has very little to do with Shakespeare. Carlson was inspired by the 2008 bestselling novel “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,” by David Wroblewski, about a Wisconsin family of working dog breeders, loosely based on “Hamlet.” Carlson’s piece is less a theatrical narrative than a postmodern dance.
“There is choreography, but it’s a gentle, flocking choreography,” said Carlson. “The humans are doing specific things, in everyday movements and some functional gestures.”
The sheep are moving under the guidance of the dogs, which are moving under guidance of the humans, and the humans are moving in relation to the animals. The main human is Cox, owner of the herd and the dogs. She started training dogs seven years ago at Nevermoor, her sheep farm, in her spare time from teaching sculpture at Alfred University.
Dogs Monk, Wull, and Lala all react to her every sound, however soft. Her calls are sometimes barely above a breath.
“Walk on,” she calls out to Wull, one of her best dogs with a laser focus on the sheep. Wull stalks the sheep with head hung low, forelegs crouched.
Cox is 20 yards away, speaking as quietly as if in a library reading room.
Wull creeps through the tall grass. And the sheep are right to assume they are being hunted.
Wull immediately lowers his belly on the ground. He never breaks his staring focus on the sheep.
“You’re working with the prey-predator relationship with a dog, and harnessing it,” explained Cox. “It’s delicious, the relationship with these dogs, and it’s built on trust. When I’m loud, it means I don’t trust my dog, and I’m putting pressure on him.
“The softer I get, the more they’re listening and the more sensitive they become. It’s less of a domination thing.”
The dancers, meanwhile, are acting out their own story through movement, often mimicking the stalking dogs.
Stalking, in the wild, is prelude to a kill, but these dogs will never go that far. The instinct to kill their prey has been bred out them over many centuries.
“It plays with ideas about, how animal are we? How buried are our instincts?” said Carlson. “It’s riveting because of the movement of the dogs and animals. My desire is that the human animals are seen with the same kind of open attention the nonhuman animals are.”