Up on a brightly lit Moscow stage a clown loudly welcomes the stars of today’s show — 20 highly trained cats.
Packing out the auditorium with excited children and adults, the feline performers are the main attraction at the world-famous and unique cat theater.
Founded just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the theater — run jointly by its founder, circus clown Yuri Kuklachev, and his sons Dmitry and Vladimir — has recently reopened after a major renovation.
From the very first moments in the venue — even before the show begins — visitors are plunged into the feline kingdom’s unique atmosphere: some cats watch spectators’ arrival from behind a glass wall while others are already darting about the stage.
When a bell rings for the beginning of the show and the curtain opens, the audience explodes with applause: on stage, a cat balances on a wheel spun by a clown as a furry co-star skateboards on its hind legs.
Then a conjuring number follows and a cat appears to bang a drum as a dove emerges from under a cloth in a clown’s hand.
Other numbers — less acrobatic but equally difficult — also show that training the cats must require well-honed skills.
“With cats, each show is an improvization,” Yuri Kuklachev’s younger son, Vladimir, told AFP.
“Cats often behave instinctively and one should always be behind them as they just do what they want.”
“Some cats enjoy the stage, they love it when we watch them attentively, while others do not like noise or lights and sit motionless,” he added.
The 30-year-old former ballet dancer said it took him a year to get used to training cats.
“With dogs it is easier, we show them what to do once, and that is it.”
His father Yuri, a legendary Soviet-era clown, started training cats to stand out from the competition and established the theater in 1990 on Moscow’s central Kutuzov Avenue.
Every show involves around 20 cats and the theater has 100 in total.
Before the theater reopened, animal rights groups called for its shows be banned, saying that the animals suffered abuse from trainers.
But Vladimir Kuklachev dismissed the criticism, arguing that recent inspections found no violations in his theater.
One of the young children watching the show, Daria Kalinovich, said she was thrilled by cats’ talents.
“I loved so much seeing the cats jumping up and down, running after a ball and juggling,” she said.
The theater’s shows — “The Cat Thief,” “The Puss in Boots,” “The Nutcracker and the King of Rats,” and even “Swan Lake” — run throughout the year, with teams of feline performers led alternately by Kuklachev-senior and his two sons.
Besides Russia, the theater has toured France, Canada, Japan, the United States and China.
It is not the only unusual animal theater in Moscow.
The Durov animal theater founded in 1912 has performers including a raccoon, ravens and mice who run a miniature railway.