Show features animals rescued from shelters


FARMINGTON — There's an old Hollywood cliché that advises performers to never work with children or animals, lest they find themselves upstaged. Gregory Popovich, who was born in the Soviet Union, says the same advice — at least the part about animals — reached his ears when he was a circus juggler, courtesy of a legendary Russian film director.

But Popovich refused to take that admonition to heart. After coming to the United States 26 years ago and becoming the first Russian to join the legendary Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Popovich decided to start his own traveling show, and his idea was to make animals an integral part of it.

The result is the World Famous Gregory Popovich Comedy Pet Theatre, which will be presented at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Henderson Fine Arts Center Performance Center on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington. Popovich describes his 85-minute show as a mix of variety acts and light physical comedy, much of it showcasing the talents of more than 30 dogs, cats, horses and mice.

"It's a combination of talented humans and talented pets," he said during a phone interview Wednesday night as the company drove through Arizona toward a series of New Mexico dates.

But Popovich acknowledges he has to be careful about not letting the furry performers steal the spotlight from the human ones.

"I have to find a balance between attention for the pets and attention for the talent of the humans," he said.

Popovich believes his show strikes that balance, but he said that's not really for him to make that distinction.

"The audience has to decide which is more talented — the pets or the humans," he said.

The show, which is based at the V Theater in Las Vegas, Nev., when it isn't being performed for 30-day road stints in the spring and fall, features a traveling crew of eight humans and more than 30 animals. Popovich emphasizes his commitment to treating his animals well, explaining that all of them were rescued from animals shelters and that he considers each of them a pet, first and foremost. He also trains them under conditions that minimize their exposure to stress.


Popovich does that by beginning his training with the animals in his backyard. He gradually increases the amount of stimulation they experience in terms of exposure to lights, noise and people. By the end of the process, which takes several months, he said, he has animals that are comfortable on stage and enjoy showing off what they can do.

The secret to getting the animals to that point, he said, is realizing that every animal is different.

"It's very simple," he said. "I use their natural habits."

Popovich designs his tricks for the animals by studying their behavior and habits individually. He then incorporates those activities into stunts that are specifically designed for each animal, many of which mimic human behavior.

"My main message is animals are human, too," he said. "We try to show the audience that these animals are talented and intelligent."

Popovich cautions anyone trying to train an animal to avoid shortcuts. Teaching an animal properly is largely a matter of patience, he said.


"It's better to spend a lot of time finding out how each animal is unique," he said. "I have to find out what they like to do. So then I have to create some trick based on their natural habits. Then the animal is happy to do that trick."

Occasionally, Popovich encounters an animal that simply won't be taught to perform tricks, and he said he is happy to retain those creatures simply as pets rather than performers. But he said most animals love to ham it up for people.

"Yes, definitely," he said. "Most dogs, for example, are very, very happy to be with me on stage."

Tickets to Saturday's performance are $22 for adults, $20 for students, $18 for seniors and $15 for children 12 and younger. Call 505-566-3430.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times.

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