Cats sail through the air, leap from 20 foot perches in a single bound, manuever along parallel bars, and stand on their front paws. This all-star housecat cast is the bizarre dream of Yuri Kuklachev, 56, the heavily-lipsticked, Captain Kangaroo-esque Russian clown and creator of the Moscow Cats Theatre. Inspired in 1971 by the sight of a hungry stray kitten doing somersaults for food, Yuri has since amassed a team of 120 cats and six dogs, taking his elaborate show to more than 80 countries. Yuri, his wife Elena, and son Dmitri, who trains cats for theatre and television despite being allergic, spend most of their waking hours with the animals.
Twenty-six cats travelled to New York for their American debut and live in their own Brighton Beach apartment between performances.
Yuri, who does not speak English, spoke through a translator just before a recent show. The stars of his show were backstage, sleeping.
Why would a cat want to perform onstage? It’s a secret. I found a way where I can communicate with cats so they will perform onstage. Everyone is always trying to tame the cat. I am playing with the cats. You cannot train a cat. If she wants to play, she will play. If she does not want to play, you cannot do anything. She won’t play, no matter if you give her a treat, if you try to force her. If I see that a cat likes to do something, I make it into a trick. I transfer the play in the house to the stage.
I’ve never seen a cat do a handstand before. This is a very unique trick, and out of a hundred cats, only one has been able to do it. It’s like gymnastics. It has to do with the anatomical structure of the cat, her spine. She builds her back up like this [mimes a cat elongating her back] and I balance the cat on my hand.
I had a cat who was doing everything, all the tricks in rehearsal, but when it came time to perform, she would refuse. I thought I couldn’t use her so I decided to give her to a friend. But she was terrible with other people. She only wanted to be with me, so of course I took her back. I thought, I have to find a way to use her in the show. One day I saw her sleeping upside down, and I realized what she could do.
What is the cats’ daily schedule like, for training? You don’t have to train her every day. You can play with her a little bit. But what she knows, what she has to do, she already knows it. She remembers everything, all her life. In a circus, you have to train daily, with the dogs, with the bears, but not with cats. She is sleeping, she is playing, she is eating.
You keep saying “she.” So which is easier to train—female or male cats? Females are better. They’re smarter. The boys . . . are not so smart. They do different things. The females know what I want from them.
How do you come up with stories for the shows like “Cats from Outer Space”? I look for ideas constantly: from books, movies, cartoons. Every day I am thinking up something new to try. Now I am thinking of a new story, “Cats’ World” or “World of the Cats.” It’s about an ideal world where everyone is equal, everyone is happy. But when outsiders try to enter the city, it is up to the cats to decide if they can enter or not.
So cats rule this city. Yes.
And cats rule your city. Yes.
What do the cats think of this city? What do they think of America? They like the food! In fact, they’ve gained some pounds.
The Moscow Cats Theatre performs at Tribeca Performing Arts Center weekends through December 29.