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George Balanchine And His Amazing Ballet Cat

Barry
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Famed choreographer George Balanchine had a distinguished career. First working with Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, he later settled in NYC to create the School of American Ballet.

Balanchine worked closely with the legendary Igor Stravinsky. Together with Balanchine’s choreography and Igor’s score the art form reached new heights.

Interestingly for us, Balanchine also had what would become a very famous cat. Her name was Mourka and the beloved alley cat was one of Balanchine’s prized pupils.

After photographer Martha Swope captured Balanchine training Mourka, with the cat demonstrating one of her spectacular ballet leaps, Life magazine printed the memorable photo and Mourka became an instant (pre internet) feline hit.

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The famous image of Balanchine training Mourka by Martha Swope

The picture proved so popular that a book deal was quickly put in place, the author being Tanaquil Le Clerq – Balanchine’s wife. In Mourka: The Autobiography of a Cat, Le Clercq spoke of Mourka’s ballet talents.

Under Balanchine’s tuition Mourka learned to do entre-chats, (a ballet jump where the dancer crosses their legs and number of times, alternately back and forth) a pas de chat, (a ballet jump where the feet are lifted one after the other to the opposite knee) and a grand jete, (a jump in which a dancer springs from one foot to land on the other with one leg forward of their body and the other stretched backwards; essentially a mid-air splits.)

Balanchine put in considerable time “training” Mourka, and on the occasion when Mourka was obliged to present a command performance for the composer Igor Stravinsky, it seemed to be the only time that a performance had given Balanchine the butterflies.

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According to Balanchine: A Biography by Bernard Taper:

Balanchine had trained this cat to perform brilliant jetés and tours en l’air; he used to say that at last he had a body worth choreographing for.

He talked of presenting Mourka publicly, in a program titled—in parody of the revolutionary program he had presented as a youth in Russia—“The Evolution of Ballet: From Petipa to Petipaw.” Once, at a party at his apartment during the Christmas season, Stravinsky asked to see Mourka perform. Guests present later said that was the only time they had ever seen Balanchine nervous before a performance.

We obviously take famous cats for granted in the internet age, but this shows that our fascination for felines with talent goes back much further indeed.

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(Sources: Balanchine: A BiographyMourka: The Autobiography of a Cat, New York Public Library)

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