Uncle Yura is famous among Russian children as the man with 120 of the most amazing cats ever. They jump through hoops, walk tightropes, dance to music, balance balls on their noses, and easily find their way through complicated mazes. The world's only cat theater, is located in a small and ordinary-looking building in downtown Moscow. Started 25 years ago by former circus clown Yuri Kuklachev, it has grown into one of the most popular weekend outings for Moscow kids.
At the start of each performance, children gather around the theater entrance while Uncle Yura (Mr. Kuklachev) passes out balloons. Then they head into the 400-seat amphitheater where the "actors" - dozens of cats of all sizes and colors - are already warming up for the show.
"I like cats very much," said five-year-old Nikita, after watching "Cats From Outer Space." It's a play - starring cats, of course - about alien felines who come to Earth to save people from evil. "I liked the white cat best," Nikita said. That would be the show's hero, an alley cat named Manya.
Manya defeats the bad guys - played by people - by beaming rays of goodness at them from a big mirrored ball. The show is nonstop action, with cats jumping, rolling, and cavorting across the stage. The plot may be hard to follow, but the kids in the audience don't seem to mind.
"It was just great," said 10-year old Diana. "I laughed and laughed." The cats perform six different plays, in six separate weekend shows. Each one lasts about two hours. Tickets cost about $2. They are always sold out.
After each show, children are invited to visit with the numerous kittens recently born in the theater. If parents agree, a child can adopt one.
Kuklachev is a little man who actually resembles a cat himself. He has a tiny round face, piercing eyes, and small pointy ears. When he talks, you might almost think he's mewing. Dressed in a clown costume and makeup, he acts in each play, along with his wife, son, daughter, and (naturally) dozens of cats.
'Cats are the most astonishing animals I have ever known," Kuklachev says. "It's impossible to force them to do anything. Each has its own personality, and you must work with that." The idea of starting a cat theater came to him many years ago, when he saw a hungry little kitten doing somersaults and walking on its hind legs.
"I took this kitten to be my first partner on the stage," he says. "His name was Romashka, and he worked with me for 22 years." The number of cats grew over the years. Kuklachev picks them up on the street, or sometimes receives them as gifts from people. He has several exotic cats, including one from Japan, three from England, and a completely bald Sphynx cat that was given to him by someone from Argentina.
Six dogs are also in the theater. They perform small parts in the plays. "It's so much easier to train dogs," Kuklachev says. "Just show a dog some sugar and he's ready to do anything you say."
Cats, however, are another story. Each play is tailored to the cats' individual talents and interests. In a way, the cats write the plays. "I observe them, play with them, and they show me what they feel like doing," Kuklachev says. "All of that is what we make the performance from."
The cats understand him perfectly, Kuklachev says: "A cat doesn't listen to words, but reacts to your tone of voice." All 120 cats live in the theater. Each has its own "room," a little space along a glass-fronted corridor with a cat-sized bed and chair. They eat twice a day, only canned food, donated by a major cat-food maker.
Kuklachev and his family spend most of their time with the cats. "I only go home to sleep for a few hours," he says. "Someone should be with them all the time."
Kuklachev has big ambitions. "I'd like to create a cat 'temple,' with at least a thousand cats," he says. "It would be like a living museum of cats, with every kind of cat in the world represented."
He also hopes to take his cats to America one day soon.
"I need to make the right connections to arrange it," he says. "It's no simple thing to travel with 120 cats."
*Do you want to know more about how you can train your cat to perform simple tricks? See 'Yes, you can train your cat,' by Yvonne Zipp in the March 23, 1999 Monitor.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society