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To the U.S., with the circus in his genes

November 26, 2005|By By Michael Miller

U.S.S.R.-born Gregory Popovich, whose `Comedy Pet Theatre' plays at the Irvine Barclay today, never thought he'd be performing in America.Growing up in the Soviet Union, Gregory Popovich always imagined that he would end up in the circus. Since he was a boy, the "Comedy Pet Theatre" star had an affinity for juggling and animal tricks -- and since his parents were circus performers themselves, he had easy access to the profession.

One thing Popovich never imagined, though, was that someday he would perform in the United States.

"We were up in a closed country with a wall around the whole empire," Popovich said. "It was not easy to go outside the country, and especially to the United States, because it was our major enemy. In my school, they taught us that the U.S.A. was enemy number one."

In 1989, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Popovich got to see the "enemy" for himself. He went with the Moscow Circus for a tour of America, then joined the Ringling Brothers Circus for a season. By the end of year, he was settled in Las Vegas and a U.S. resident for good.

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"We were surprised how friendly regular people were," Popovich said.

Today, the notion of a Russian performer in the United States is hardly the novelty it once was. So when Popovich plays to a packed house at the Irvine Barclay Theatre today, spectators can forget about politics and simply enjoy one of the world's most popular animal shows.

"Comedy Pet Theatre," which runs twice today, features Popovich and his menagerie of 14 cats and nine dogs -- all of which he adopted from animal shelters. Popovich, who conceived the show eight years ago, spends much of his time between shows finding and training animals to perform with him.

"Some animals have a trick inside their bodies," Popovich said. "They can do it without rehearsal. If they have it, it's easy to do onstage."

Dogs, he noted, are easier to train than cats. It may be a matter of weeks before Popovich can locate a cat's hidden gift. Some of the feline stars in his show do high jumps or walk around on two legs.

The show features eight human performers, including Popovich and his 14-year-old daughter, Anastasia. One of the most popular bits in the show is the "dog classroom," in which Popovich plays a teacher while the dogs impersonate schoolchildren at desks.

"For us, it's important for people to understand that animals are people too," Popovich said.

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