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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Flippered Performers Steal the Show

As dress rehearsals go, Monday's opening was a good omen. The assembled crowd of schoolchildren craned perilously over the guard rail and janitors stopped mopping and looked on with doting smiles.

And the center of all the attention -- two dolphins just in from the Black Sea -- gamboled conspicuously in the holding tank, like they were good and ready for a little limelight.

At the official opening of the new "dolphinarium" at the Palace of Water Sports in northeast Moscow, about 100 Muscovites were treated to the biggest display of nautical showmanship to hit this landlocked city in years. Two sea lions and three walruses opened the show, clapping for each other, and a white beluga whale named Yegor (after former economics minister Yegor Gaidar), allowed himself to be ridden by a woman.

But the audience's attention kept straying. Waiting in the wings were Malchik and Korney, Moscow's only two dolphins.

For whatever reason -- playfulness, or intelligence, or perhaps a sense of humor -- dolphins have always evoked extravagant affection among human beings. Moreover, says their head trainer, Vladimir Petrushchin, dolphins are eminently capable of maintaining long-term relationships.

"When I saw dolphins for the first time, I simply fell in love," recalls Petrushchin, who is a seasoned traveler on the sea-animal performance circuit. "By now," he adds, "the feeling has dulled a little, of course. I've just gotten used to them."

Petrushchin, a biologist by training, wears flip-flops to work and smells like chlorine even when he's nowhere near a pool. After 23 years on the job, he can do everything from teach sea lions to bounce balls on their noses to expound on Gray's Paradox, the theory which explains why dolphins can accelerate to such high speeds underwater.

Unlike most show-business professionals, he says, dolphins are hard-working and non-materialistic. "They don't do it for fish," he says. "They don't just want food. They do it for the pleasure they get from interacting with people."

The water show, which has performed with a number of different animals overseas in Yugoslavia, Chile, Argentina and Israel, has moved inland to Moscow for good, said Lev Makhometov, another biologist and the organization's director.

The neighborhood where the Palace of Water Sports is located seems to be filled with buildings in preliminary stages of construction. An enormous, abandoned structure next to the tank was once slated to be an aquarium, Petrushchin says.

"We were all set," he said, having secured sponsorship from the Fuel and Energy Ministry. But after the Soviet Union's collapse, the ministry was divided, and the structure was never completed. Construction is still planned for a major aquarium complex, he says, but costs have skyrocketed in recent years with the project shelved temporarily.

For now, the group is settled in the Palace, where on Tuesday trainers were putting the sea lions, Kim and Ricky, through their paces. The animals made loud burping sounds on command and hauled themselves up onto trampolines. "We try to let them do things they like" after the shows, says trainer Valery Gerebshikov. "They have to make quick exits. That can be hard for them."

The dolphinarium is located at 27 Ulitsa Mironov-skaya. Tickets are 2,000 rubles and are available outside the complex. Shows 7 P.M. daily except Tuesday until April 25, when the frequency of shows will increase. Tel. 369-7966. Nearest metro: Semonovskaya.