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The crowd of restless Muscovite children in huge ribbons and garish Sunday best comes to a respectful hush as the curtain rises at the Durov Animal Theatre.

The disco lighting of the first act -- a poodle who barks out answers to arithmetic problems -- prompts shrieks of glee.

But the real gasps are reserved for the theatre's pièces de résistance -- a chimpanzee dressed as a Barbie doll, a karaoke-singing bear and a ballet-dancing warthog.

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Founded in 1912 by Russian circus clown and animal trainer Vladimir Durov, this Moscow theatre has worked stoically through revolution, political turmoil and war, its acts always attracting a full house.

Even in 1941, while German artillery fire shook the streets of Moscow, Durov's motley crew of porcupines, armadillos and tigers continued to pirouette on request.

Ninety years on, acts that impressed Russian princes, stern Soviet leaders and Western visitors alike are little changed, though canned pop music has replaced the live orchestra.

The theatre's current director, Durov's granddaughter, still follows the founder's golden rule -- animals should be trained with rewards, not punishment.

Natalya Durova insists none of the creatures in her care is mistreated. The 67-year-old refers to the 800 animals she houses as her children, and proudly shows off a framed certificate from the World Wildlife Fund.

Even once they retire, the animal actors claim "pensions" and continue to live on the theatre's premises, stepping into the limelight once a month for old times' sake.

"They get strength to live from stepping onto the stage," says Durova, walking among the cages.

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Overseeing their frenzied feeding, Durova liberally distributes sugar cubes and biscuit crumbs, calling out into a cacophony of barks, cackles and squawks that "mother is here."

The animal theatre has not lived through 90 years without troubled times.

A 22-year-old apprentice trainer was killed three years ago, squashed by the adult elephant he was trying to feed. It was the theatre's first and only fatality, but every one of Durova's 200 employees has scratches, bites and other injuries to show for their demanding work.

The trainer responsible for camels and horses lost his front teeth when he was kicked by a mare. Durova herself shows off a large red pelican bite on her hand.

Russia's financial ups and downs have also taken their toll. Last November the theatre's century-old pipes burst flooding the basement and severely damaging the building's structure.

To make ends meet, many of the animals have second careers in television or cinema -- the parrots housed just outside Durova's office appear in a yogurt advertising campaign and in Last Hero, Russia's version of reality TV's Survivor.

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Durova herself rarely makes it onto stage these days, kept off the boards by strict doctor's orders, but her gold and sequined costumes still hang in her cluttered office.

And as a doyenne of Russian performing arts, she still holds court on Sunday afternoons, beckoning in her admirers with long, multi-ringed fingers.

Sitting in an antique armchair in her office, the walls of which are covered with hundreds of icons, family portraits and newspaper cuttings, Durova addresses guests on everything from global warming to the late Princess Diana.

Her torrent of reminiscences and aphorisms is interrupted only by scattered rhetorical questions and a brief video of her five-year-old chimpanzee Jakob.

"Look! He eats like an English lord," Durova exclaims, waving a cigarette at the television screen as Jakob drinks a glass of juice and washes his teeth.

"The entire Kennedy airport fell in love with him," she enthuses, referring to a recent visit to New York. "He's beautiful, and he has a great figure! He even gave Mrs. Clinton an interview."

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Durova, born on the road during one of her parents' many tours across Russia, worked as a circus trainee from the age of four.

She performed in field hospitals during the Second World War and on Victory Day in May, 1945, she rode across Red Square in a miniature carriage, smiling for the newsreel cameras with a huge ribbon in her hair.

"Stalin liked my father. We have one of his telegrams framed in our museum," she says.

"And I have many medals -- I wasn't even 10 when I received my first one -- but I never wear them. I don't know where to pin them," she exclaims, gesturing at a picture of Grandpa Durov in a wide clown's collar, wearing a sash heavy with medals.

And yet, the theatre's popularity remains undiminished. Scores of children still fill its two auditoriums for one of more than 50 weekly shows, their parents paying 30 rubles (about $1.50) for an hour of animal cabaret.

And, Durova tells journalists and friends with a wave of her diamante-clad arm, they will keep coming.

"When you have children, my dears, you will bring them here too."

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