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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: Cats Perform So Well With A Lot of Love




Show me how you laugh," says the clown, holding out a microphone.


"Tee hee hee," goes an embarrassed girl.


"Call that a laugh?" demands the clown. "Now I'll show you how to laugh."


"Just try, mate," the boy next to me mutters under his breath.


The famous Yury Kuklachov has brought his unique Cat Theater "on tour" to the working class suburb of Kuzminki. I have come with a friend, who organizes outings for deprived children.


The boy beside me is one from this group, a cynical 11-year-old called Fedya. Kuklachov is going to have to work hard to win over such sneering near-teenagers.


Actually, I am rather skeptical, too. As a cat owner, I know the truth of the old joke about the difference between a dog and a cat. The dog says to himself: "He feeds me, he strokes me, he must be God." The cat says: "He feeds me, he strokes me, I must be God." You can never make a cat do what it does not want to do.


But of course wise old Kuklachov, who has been working with cats for 25 years, knows that and always goes with, rather than against, their instincts. The show opens with the clown setting out a picnic and the cats running on and off to steal tidbits. It is nature, but choreographed.


A ginger cat enters, seeming to push a pram containing a tiny dog. "You can see the wires," says Fedya. "That's because the pram is heavy," I say, "but could you make your cat stand up on its back legs and strut across the stage like that?"


The acts become increasingly complicated and spectacular. Cats walk the high wire and fly out over the audience on swings. The black and white Sosiskin (Little Sausage) climbs an eight-meter pole, the drums roll and he jumps, "without parachute or gas mask," into Kuklachov's arms.


The feats of the cats are interspersed with acts by child circus stars. At the end, Kuklachov throws giant plastic balls out for the audience to punch back and forth. Forgetting his street cred, Fedya leaps from his seat to join this game.


I go backstage to meet Kuklachov. At first, I think this might be a mistake. Art is an illusion; if you do not want to be disillusioned, you should not see the threads with which it is sewn. There is a terrible stink of cat from the caged animals, waiting to return to base where they roam freely.


But I have 15 minutes with a living legend. In his field, he is the greatest.


"Love is the key," he says. "I hate the circus because everything there is achieved by force. This is not circus, it's theater. The cats are playing for pleasure."


While he peels off his false nose, Kuklachov tells me that nine years ago, he lived and worked in Britain. Because of quarantine laws, he could not take his own cats, raised from kittens, but he managed with a temporary troupe of alley cats.


Back in Russia, he struggled when the state stopped subsidizing the arts. The pet food firm Whiskas stepped in to provide sponsorship and 120 tins of meat a day f one for each cat.


As I leave, Kuklachov gives me a book of cat tricks and some signed posters.


"Can I have one of those?" asks Fedya.


"You liked the show, then?"


"It wasn't bad."


From a cynical 11-year-old, this is praise indeed.