Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Feathered and Furry Thespians

For MT
As actors -- human and animal alike -- prepare to go onto the big stage at the Durov Animal Theater, Svetlana Maximova does some last minute coaching. "Please quiet down and behave yourself," she tells an unruly raven who has become one of her frequent partners on stage. Maximova's tone isn't that of an animal tamer, it is generous and almost coaxing, as if she is speaking with a capricious child. This kindness toward animals is the founding principle of the Durov Theater.

The show starts, all the commotion and backstage squabbles are forgotten, and actors of all species behave as professionals, following their cues. The theme of the show is four-legged rescue rangers. First, a feline pilot in a brightly colored plane glides above the audience and down to the stage to pick up some helpers: white mice climb up a ladder to join him in the cockpit. After the plane rises back up to the ceiling, the mice say farewell to their captain and parachute down to the stage. This is just the beginning. Up next is a dancing goat, a raccoon acrobat, a chimp with a penchant for blowing soap bubbles, and a cast of cats and dogs who perform a one-act play. People, too, appear on stage, but animals are unequivocally the stars of the show.

Grigory Tambulov / For MT
Kindness toward animals is the theater's founding principle.
"When my grandfather Vladimir Durov founded the theater, people who worked with animals were called 'tamers,'" said Yury Durov, the theater's acting director. "Tamers showed the audience how man conquered beast, but my grandfather wanted to treat animals like acting partners, he was the first to become an animal trainer rather than a tamer."

Work in the circus was not considered a proper profession for a noble, but Vladimir Durov, born in 1863, dreamed of becoming a circus performer from his early childhood. Before he founded the Durov Theater, in 1912, he had already gained considerable fame as an actor and animal trainer. One of his signature acts was performed with Zapyataika the counting dog. Durov had adopted this ruddy stray, whose act later inspired Anton Chekhov's short story "Kashtanka."

In 1912, Vladimir Durov converted a former noble's mansion into a theater he called "Kroshka" or "small thing." Durov also created a zoological lab in which he and his professional partner, Vladimir Bekhterev, studied animal behavior and developed humane training methods based solely on reward rather than punishment. At the time, this approach to training was revolutionary. Durov wanted to use the animal theater to teach children to be kind and humane. His mission has been passed down through generations of Durovs, first to his son then his granddaughter Natalya Durova. Durova was asked to help train the dog Laika, the first living being to go into space. Knowing that Laika was never meant to come back and considering this inhumane, Durova refused to take the job. Now 73, she continues to operate the theater with the motto "Teach by Entertaining."

Grigory Tambulov / For MT
A chimp on a roll and having a ball in a recent perfomance.
The Durov Animal Theater has two stages, a museum and a mice railway. The small stage, which has 300 seats, is designed for the youngest patrons. The actors are mostly small and domestic animals, and the performances attempt to dispel a child's fear of animals. The larger stage, with 900 seats, is meant for a slightly more mature audience. There are bigger animals, including tigers, bears, seals and even a hippo. The performances sustain a more sophisticated narrative. The Durov museum houses commemorative memorabilia, including posters, photographs and even former animal stars that have been preserved through taxidermy. The mice railway, a signature piece of the Durov Animal Theater, sends live mice on a train ride through a landscape based of Pushkin's fairy tales.

"We want kids to grow up in this theater," Durov said. "To move up from the small stage to the big stage. Now we are working to incorporate more actors into the performances on the big stage. We would like to rotate several acts so that each time a child comes to the theater he can see something new."

Animal trainer Maximova remembered her own first days at the theater.

"I came here when I was just a kid and I knew I wanted to work here," Maximova said. "I was 17 years old. I loved this theater, but because it was so prestigious I had little hope of getting a job."

She admitted that as a child she was deathly afraid of dogs and said it was ironic that the first animal she trained was a wolf.

Grigory Tambulov / For MT
Small animals star on the small stage.
"The theater got a pack of wolf pups and one of the wolves was blind and had sores on his paws. No experienced trainers wanted to work with him, and I asked if I could take him on," she said. "My mother was really against it. She reminded me how difficult it is to take care of a sick animal, but I told her, 'This is my chance!'" Maximova was right; her wolf performed longer than all of his siblings. Maximova herself has now been at the theater for 25 years.

In its lifetime, the Durov Animal Theater has witnessed a multitude of changes: new animals, news acts, new audiences, and even new forms of government. The theater survived both the Bolshevik Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Through all of these changes, the theater has remained a family business. Natalya Durova, a renowned animal trainer, actress, and author, inherited the theater after the death of her father. She is largely responsible for making the theater a popular destination in Moscow, and initiated the expansion of the theater, which in now under way. The Moscow city government sponsors the operation and the expansion of the theater.

Durova works alongside her younger brother Yury Durov, whose daughter Natasha also works at the theater part time while working toward a degree at Moscow Humanitarian University.

"I'm not sure if I'll eventually take over work at the theater," Natasha said. "When I was younger, I was against the idea because this is all I knew and I wanted to try something else. But now I don't know, something about the theater just draws you in."

****Big stage performances start at noon on Fri., and at noon, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Sat. and Sun. Tickets cost 150-400 rubles. Small stage performances start at 11 p.m. on Wed. and Thu., and at 11 p.m., 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. on Sat. and Sun. Tickets cost 150 rubles.

4 Ul. Durova, 631-3047 M. Tsvetnoi Bulvar, ***