With a flash of fur and a shiver of whiskers, the stars of Moscow’s Cat Theater take the stage for one of their many sold-out winter shows.
There’s a gasp of appreciation from children and parents crowded in the little hall as the troupe of trained felines begins its performance.
Some climb poles. Some, in striped sailor suits, walk tightropes. Others push toy trains, leapfrog over human backs or balance atop tiny platforms.
Cats are considered by many to be impossible to train. But the owner of these cats, Yuri Kuklachev, has made his living out of the impossible for two decades. He’s not giving away his secret; he just says the stage act began by chance when he was working as a clown in Moscow.
“Once I found a hungry little kitten, and he became my first stage partner. He sat inside a giant toffee, and whenever I unwrapped it, he’d jump out and stride boldly around the stage with his tail held high. And he could do somersaults and jump through a hoop and walk on his hind legs and meow very loudly whenever he was hungry,” Kuklachev said.
“It happened that the caretaker caught sight of us together, and when he saw what the kitten could do, he exclaimed: ‘That’s real feline theater!’ And that’s how I got the idea of creating the world’s first Cat Theater.”
Since then, Kuklachev has worked with nearly 100 cats, fluffy or smooth, thin or fat, shy or showoff, but all with cozy fireside names such as Carrot and Redhead and Gypsy and Charlie Boy.
In 1990, as the Soviet Union edged toward collapse, he set up his own private theater in a small movie hall on chic Kutuzovsky Avenue, home of the political elite and their children.
There, Kuklachev and his cats have lived happily after.
Today, it’s a feline shrine: Even the doorknobs are in the shape of carved cat heads. Portraits of past greats are displayed in the theater foyer, a hall of fame of the stars of cat show biz.
But not all the performers have four paws.
Human clowns, an elastic child gymnast, acrobats, a Hula-Hoop spinner in a spangled tutu and a posse of 6-foot-tall “bad guy” giant mice with flashing green-and-red eyes also are on the credits of this season’s special - the “Nutcracker Suite,” based on Tchaikovsky’s ballet of the same name.
Acrobatic though they might be, the cats contribute little to the actual story line, a traditional favorite for Russian children; it’s a Christmas-season tale featuring a battle between good children and bad mice. So far, even Kuklachev hasn’t managed to teach cats to act.
But he has managed to make a profit. He says proudly that he has survived to this day “without a single sponsor.”
After the show, he whips out a mobile phone from the pocket of his clown suit and carries on businesslike conversations involving the equivalent of thousands of dollars. Unlike most people in the cash-strapped Russian stage world, Kuklachev does not talk anxiously about where to get the next ruble. He clearly does not need to.
His shows are sold out weeks ahead, with about 300 people packing into the hall twice a day every weekend. With extras - popcorn, “American sausages” or long balloons twisted into cat shapes and Polaroid snaps of children standing with Kuklachev in his clown suit - a trip to his theater runs about $20. Local artists and Western cat food manufacturers are lining up to display their wares at the theater.
What charms older members of his audience most, however, are not the slick modern touches but the nostalgic memories the shows bring of the squeaky-clean and always upbeat children’s entertainment of the Soviet era. Many Russians compare that innocent entertainment of the past with Russia’s dangerous, crime-filled environment of today in which, they feel, children are forced to grow up too fast.
“I used to take my kids to the Cat Theater when they were small, and it was wonderful,” recalled 53-year-old Inna Makarova as she stood outside the theater looking wistfully at its cheerful posters.
“My little Olya wore a big white ribbon in her hair. She’s got two kids of her own now, but I often stop and look at the posters and remember how it was. Oh yes, those were the good old days.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.