There are two phases of everyone's life: before seeing Cats and after seeing Cats. Starting today, with the release of a new film version of Andrew Lloyd Weber's hit musical, millions of viewers will enter into this second phase of life, and a new generation of people with "Memory" stuck in their head will arise.
But before Taylor Swift was CGI'd into a humanoid singing feline, the musical had, and still has, an unshakable presence within the dance community. Maybe you had a jazz teacher who was in the 1992 national tour, or maybe the best dancer from your hometown studio made it all the way to play Bombalurina on Broadway— without a doubt, if you are a dancer, you are probably less than six degrees from a jellicle cat.
I first saw Cats in the late 90s via a VHS tape of the 1997 filmed version of the stage production. The musical immediately mesmerized my little dancer eyes. Yes, the songs were catchy, but my attention was completely consumed by the dancing.
At one point, the synthesized score slows down and Victoria the White Cat comes center stage and does the most beautiful développé à la seconde I had ever seen in my 6 years of existence. She slides into a split, her hands clawing through the air with a port de bras worthy of, well, a cat.
The unitard-clad dancers of Cats could do anything—pirouettes, acrobatics, tap dancing—and they could do it all at the same time and with face paint. They were strong and precise and Gillian Lynne's choreography was so different from anything I had done in my ballet classes. It opened my eyes to a completely new, Nutcracker-less world of dance.
It wasn't the first time I had seen professional dancing, but it was the first time it looked so fun.
Seeing Cats was also, for many of us, the first time we understood that we could point our toes for a living. There were people on my TV screen doing promenades in attitude, and being on TV means being famous. I could do a promenade! And if I worked really hard maybe I could do a promenade on TV, too.
Cats is a beacon of light—a glimmer of what all your training can lead to. Between the national and international tours, the West End, Broadway, and the VHS tape, the accessibility and popularity of the dance-based musical was able to inspire and influence a generation of bunheads and jazzerinas, whether you lived in New York City or Nowheresville, USA.
There's a lot that doesn't make sense about Cats; the word "jellicle" will never really mean anything and what actually is the Heavyside Layer? But it's undeniable that the musical has played a formative role in many dancers' lives by providing an introduction to high quality, professional dancing. Cats created the roles you could dream about one day dancing.
I never got to be in a production of Cats (don't tell my younger self, she'd be devastated), but I did finally get to see it live, on Broadway, in 2014. A cat ran through the audience and stretched its paw directly into my face and, reader, I cried.
I will always love Cats and be grateful to it for bringing dance to such a wide audience. And I hope, with all my heart, that this new film version, which stars Royal Ballet principal Francesca Hayward and features choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, will be taken in and beloved by some young dancer who leaves the theater wanting to one day do pas de chats as perfect as Macavity the Mystery Cat or a développé as high as Victoria the White Cat.