Bird Droppings from Estonia: Tartu mews
Archived Articles 23 Nov 2007 Hilary BirdEWR
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On Hallowe’en I, very appropriately, popped next door to the Vanemuine theatre to see something odd. I had hesitated but curiosity got the better of me. The show was “Boris the Cat’s Olympiad” performed by the Moscow Cats Theatre. This troupe extraordinaire was founded by clown Yuri Kuklachev, son of a truck driver and a factory worker, who trained at circus school and worked in the Moscow State Circus with a cat called Strelka (loosely translated as “arrow”) who he had found performing on the street in return for food. Kuklachev and Strelka became famous for the “Cat in the Pot” act. He would take her out, and she would keep jumping back in again.

The Moscow Cats Theatre first put paw to board in 1990 and has become enormously popular both in Moscow and abroad; the much-traveled tiddles have visited 80 countries. A family-run operation, it has a company of over 120 cats (and four canines) who perform alongside human mimes in a variety of epics. There are no mice. Productions include “The Nutcracker”, “Cats From Outer Space” (where a painter goes to sleep and dreams that aliens arrive in a UFO to try to steal his cats) and the show that I saw, “Boris the Cat’s Olympiad.”

I have Western prejudices against animal circus acts but I have to admit that I was quite won over! The show starts with cats running criss-cross across the stage. Well, that was enough to impress. I had read that Kuklachev often rescues his performers from the streets and spends long hours watching each cat's natural behavior before developing tricks. Speaking as one who lives with two ex-streetwalkers and cannot do a thing with ‘em I was rather stupefied.

What really won me over was the fact that the cats could get away any time; they are not fettered in any way and there’s a lot of encouragement and strokes from the humans. Kuklachev Jr., Dmitri, 30, a member of the troupe despite an allergy to cats that he controls through breathing exercises (!), says that his father trains the cats not by rewarding them with treats, as one might train a dog, but “by long, good words, touching them.” The elder Mr. K bridles at the idea of rewarding cats with food. “A cat is not a dog. If a cat doesn't want to do something, he will not do it.”

There were pawstands and aerial acrobatics. The Olympiad team cats made their entrance on little trolleys with flags. The UK puss was black and white – a jellicle London cat, no less. At one point, a cat stood on a round dance hall mirrored ball. But the most astonishing turn was when Kuklachev put a creamy Persian on a little shelf on a pole and came down into the audience and passed the critter slowly around at child level. “It will end in tears,” I thought, as an ocean of small hands reached for puss. But no! The cat show ended with the clowns helping a row of about 30 excited children up onto the stage and the eponymous Boris (a very fine tabby) ran backward and forwards over their bent backs. The human show ended straight after that with the clowns lobbing huge helium balls (a Russian circus standard) into the auditorium to be batted about by the audience, large and small — the balls even managed to reach to the balcony …

Kuklachev says that cats cannot be trained — they will only do what they want to — and the performance was a bit ramshackle, with the cats occasionally refusing to do what's expected of them, or deciding to do something completely different instead. “Cats are like actors. They do what they want. Sometimes a cat doesn't want one trick, so he does another. I don't train them. They train me. We find common language. I have a theater. Training is for the circus. I didn't know when I started that no one in the world was working with cats. So with my cats, I traveled all over the world. I got a prize in Monte Carlo. I got other prizes. My cats helped me get them.” ?

Where does the Moscow Cats Theatre find new artistes? “It's a dynasty,” says son Dmitri. Clown Kuklachev said he would like to found a “cat temple”, home to 1,000 cats where tourists could visit the “living museum”. Hmmm. I’m still not completely convinced because I like my cats au naturelle. But I can’t see how there’s any cruelty involved. Take a look at the tiddles in action for yourselves at

 
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