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Why man's best friend is the ultimate performance artist

Dachshund UN: Canines are perfect performance artists, adding an exciting element of chaos to live art.

Watching Eugene, an adorable four-year-old chiweenie, squirm his way through a press conference for the performance installation Dachshund UN, you instantly understand why W.C. Fields advised actors, "Never work with children or animals."

Next to him, Tina Rasmussen, artistic director of the World Stage festival, has a heck of a time keeping anyone's attention as she attempts to describe Australian artist Bennett Miller's bizarre restaging of a meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights with 37 dachshunds standing in as delegates.

Only after "Euie" is back in the arms of his owner does Rasmussen get down to really explaining why Miller has ignored half of Fields's famous maxim for his satirical take on the United Nations and dog-eat-dog diplomacy.

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Canines may be ungenerous actors, but they are perfect performance artists, adding an exciting element of chaos to live art. "When you go to a play, you know that they've rehearsed it – even in improv, there's a structure," says Rasmussen, who curates Toronto's international festival of contemporary performance at Harbourfront Centre. "This, we don't know. … It's a different kind of situation – space meets time meets the possibility of randomness."

Indeed, as far as I'm concerned, dogs aren't really capable of "acting." Take Tilley, the Norfolk terrier who played Toto on opening night of the current Mirvish production of The Wizard of Oz – a terrible theatre actor by any human standards. Sure, Tilley always moved to the right place at the right time, but I never believed she was actually Dorothy's best pal – from my vantage point, it was always clear that she was more interested in the treats being surreptitiously fed to her. I saw Tilley, not Toto.

Michael Peterson, a University of Wisconsin-Madison theatre professor, examined the problems surrounding making animals represent other animals or anything else onstage – and the question "How are animals made to mean?" – in a 2007 article for The Drama Review. "Just as when a human actor too doggedly pursues her/his blocking, obedience itself – a kind of loyal overacting – may paradoxically undermine illusion," he wrote. "On some level, animals in performance always matter first as themselves."

(Peterson isn't the only scholar interested in this area, incidentally: University of Guelph professor Ric Knowles is at work on an issue of Theatre Journal that will be entirely devoted to the hot topic of "interspecies performance.")

That "mattering first as themselves" is what make dogs like Eugene perfect for performance installations such as Dachshund UN – superior, in many ways, to human performance artists.

To vastly oversimplify the differences between performance (or performance art or live art) and theatre, the latter is primarily about acting, while the former is about doing. When Marina Abramovic sits, immobile, across from spectators and makes eye contact with them, she is not pretending to be anyone else – or, in the words of the title of her recent Museum of Modern Art retrospective, The Artist is Present. And yet, even with Abramovic, there is always a hint of something theatrical about her art – it is difficult for even the most Zen human being to simply be.

Dogs like Eugene, however, are great at being dogs – indeed, they are known for the endearing quality (that we may project on them) of living in the moment.

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Of course, there is one reason why even performance artists may not want to work with dogs: They may suddenly engage in an impromptu, avant-garde act of the kind that famously got choreographer Marie Chouinard and her bucket banned from the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1980. The World Stage staff are prepared for this eventuality. "We are going to have doggy bags in the theatre and wet wipes," Rasmussen says. "It will be interesting to see if one lifts their leg on the nameplate of Djibouti or whatever."

Frankie goes to Hollywood

It's two days until Frankie, my dachshund, has his big debut on the World Stage at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre, and he's a shoo-in to represent Italy, a country that knows a thing or two about small leaders with big personalities.

How did this wiener dog rise above the rest and get selected to star in Dachshund UN?

Frankie subscribes to the method school of acting. He insists I call him "high commissioner" even off set. And just look at his answers on the screening questionnaire. Favourite accessory: his red and white Canada Pooch coat (who doesn't appreciate a stylish head of state – take that, MObama); Ideal weekend activities: burrowing under blankets (high-ranking officials need their rest); Most distinct quality: sarcasm (world affairs are tough, it's nice when a leader can lighten the mood).

Nor is he afraid to speak his mind and protect what's his. All the area squirrels know they are not welcome on his turf and Great Danes must pass the smell test before being granted safe passage. Countries would offer their finest bacon-scented treats to have Frankie represent them.

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Plus, he's a natural artist: He has a strong sense of vision for what he wants (he'll wander the dog park until he's good and ready to come home) and he's not afraid to make his mark (usually on a snowbank or a condo building).

Sure, no formal auditions were held, but with his slim physique and melt-your-heart looks, he was a lock. Does Orlando Bloom audition for all his roles? I suspect not.

Melissa Whetstone

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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