Gone to the dogs
German shepherds hit the stage at Kennedy Center
Thousands of eyes in the audience watched in anticipation as Jeb and Bella rushed across the stage through flashes of lightning and booming thunder in the harrowing scene. It was the pair’s first performance at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and they were clearly a hit.
At least that’s what owners Kelly Burkhardt of Hollywood and Bob Nixon of Mechanicsville said of their two German shepherds, which performed earlier this spring at what Nixon called “the Superbowl of operas.”
Richard Wagner’s “The Ring” is a foursome of German dramas, with each section presented on a different night as a cycle by The Washington National Opera. The two dogs from St. Mary’s performed in the second part of the opera, called “The Valkyrie.”
“They had their own dressing room,” Burkhardt said. She and Nixon also had special parking spots near the center, and were given permission to walk the dogs anywhere in and around the building, she said.
Burkhardt had been to the Kennedy Center many times as a child, when her parents would take her to see a variety of performances. That made seeing the backstage that much more special, she said.
Nixon said he had been to the Kennedy Center as an adult while working as a dog handler for the Secret Service under the Reagan and Bush eras. It was still a great experience to actually be part of the play, he said.
“We got mobbed by people waiting to take pictures,” in the lobby after the performances, he said.
And although the nights — including rehearsals — ended very late, “It was so worth it,” Burkhardt said.
They had four performances, including one dress rehearsal.
Both dogs appeared in just one scene that lasted only seconds. They had to run all the way across the stage, off-leash, while barking. Doing that feat alone, on command, could prove difficult for many dogs, but there were added environmental challenges, too. There was pretend lightning and thunder sounds, a bellowing orchestra playing and the floor, which was grated, tilted toward the front of the stage on a fairly significant slope.
“It was just a lot going on at once,” Burkhardt said.
Add to that the sold-out audience and it was no telling what might have happened. In the end, though, the show went on and the pair performed perfectly, the dog owners said.
“It’s an awful lot for a dog,” she said.
This was Bella’s first public performance. Jeb, however, is no stranger to performance art.
He appears in two episodes of “House of Cards,” the Netflix original series about politics in Washington, D.C.. Jeb is seen as a Secret Service guard dog in the television drama.
“What goes into that stuff is just amazing,” Nixon said of the production.
Someone with the television show connected Nixon with staff at the Kennedy Center when they decided to have live dogs in the opera, he said. “Now we’re on this list,” he added.
At 10, Jeb is a bit older than 7-year-old Bella. Both dogs were initially trained at Applejack K-9 Academy in Charlotte Hall, with follow-up training from their owners. Jeb was trained in finding drugs, tracking and personal protection while Bella was trained in explosives, air scent, human remains and personal protection.
They both trained to be Calvert K-9 Search Team dogs and each had been on a search mission before their owners began focusing training on their other dogs.
The canine search team trains a few times a month, and are called into duty by the police during emergency searches. Burkhardt is the operations chief for the organization.
“I grew up with them” and wanted a good family dog that would offer protection, she said of German shepherds. Indeed, the breed will protect their family at all costs, so long as they are trained properly, she said. But they are also playful — especially with children in the family.
“They’re just really well-rounded dogs,” she said.
She stressed the need for proper training, because the shepherds are very strong animals.
“With any large-breed dog, you are obligated to training,” she said.
And, like any actor hoping to make a break in the business, the dogs’ good behavior was noticed, Nixon said. He and Burkhardt were asked if they’d be interested in having the dogs participate in next year’s opera performance of “Dead Man Walking” at the center.
Bob Nixon with Jeb and Kelly Burkhardt with Bella pause for a photograph. The two German shepherds in May performed in the opera “The Ring” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Bella sits in a dressing room at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.