The Mysterious Past and Present of Moulin Rouge
By Mila Gorokhovich
April 7, 2003
(Also see Mila's interview with a Doriss Girl.)
It was with awe that I stepped into the glamorous hall of the notorious Bal du Moulin Rouge - the legendary Parisian cabaret that is located at the tip of Paris' red-light district, otherwise known as Rue de Pigalle. I was very much inspired by the Hollywood film and I was eager to discover the truth behind Moulin Rouge and how much it lives up to its claim to fame in the 21st century. I discovered that while Moulin Rouge was once a hotspot for bohemians such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Bourvil (two acclaimed artists), it has turned into a magnet for Japanese, Russian and other international tour buses. As with most world-famous Parisian sites, high tourism is hardly uncommon. But with that, some secret, mysterious part of the place has vanished. Perhaps it's the aura of the wealthy, Bourgeoisie men in top hats or the Bohemian ambiance - the painters, poets, locals- they have been replaced by tourists and foreign consumers. The venue is even used for business events; the enchanting music hall, Belle-Epoque-styled cabaret room and show are "enough to seduce companies and their public relations policy." But Fanny Rabasse, the press relations manager, claims that the show continues to maintain the everlasting Moulin Rouge tradition of feathers, rhinestones, sequins and beautiful girls - indeed, it does. The glitter and glamour of the show has become the legacy of its founders - Mr. Oller and Charles Zidler.
Naturally, after the Hollywood film, Moulin Rouge gained an even more glorified and infamous reputation. After the film's release, the company embarked on a world tour, including Great Britain, where they performed for Prince Charles himself. However, other than the aesthetic appearance of the Grand hall in which Moulin Rouge takes place, there is little truth about the actual story of the Moulin. Rabasse revealed that Baz Lurhman presents a colorful and beautiful love story, but the image of the Moulin's dancers are falsely portrayed. Conversely, the dancers were never sex objects for those who attended the show, which was opened to the public. However, Rue de Pigalle is full of risqué entertainment including small cabarets, strip tease shows, sex shops and an erotic museum.
Since 1889, when Moulin Rouge first opened as a show of young female dancers who performed dances of the most unique kind - frivolous screaming, rowdy and boisterous rhythm, exposure of panties and legs came together for what was known as the Quadrille. The dancers were not professionals by any means. By day, the girls took part in mundane work such as linen maids, laundresses and seamstresses. But by night, they transformed into dancers of the revolutionary Quadrille. The dance was loved by many for its free-spirited and unruly nature and in two years time, it spread across the Channel into Great Britain. It was there that Charles Morton, renamed the dance - the French cancan. Most of the dancers became famous due to their peculiar and suggestive names such as la Goulue (the glutton), the Toulouse-Lautrec's muse - Nini Pattes-en-l'Air (a leg-over), Grille d'Egout (drain cover) and la Mome Fromage (kid cheese). The cancan became the signature dance of Bal du Moulin Rouge and continues to amuse the audience that sees it on stage today.
Although the cancan remains the one constant in the show, the actual show and its theme differs each year. Celebrities the likes of Jean Gabin, Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, Ginger Rogers, Village People, Liza Minnelli, Michael Barisnikov, Gipsy Kings, Elton John, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Juliette Binoche have all performed at the acclaimed cabaret over the 20th Century. The actual venue has had many owners, but it was Jacki Clerico, manager in 1962, who staged the first topless dancers and installed a giant aquarium for a nautical ballet. "Frou Frou", the first show with these new additions, turned out to be a great success and since then, Clerico, who was a superstitious man, chose to title the dances only with the first letter "F." Today, the show is "Feerie," created and choreographed by Doris Haug and Ruggero Angeletti who have been the Moulin's directors since 1961.
As you enter the grand hall underneath the illustrious windmill (Moulin- in French), you come into the actual music hall under the vivid and glittering red Bal du Moulin Rouge sign that hovers over the entrance. Elegantly dressed maitre'ds and headwaiters can be seen running through the space, gracefully dodging people, tables, chairs and each other. Instant wonder comes over you as you glance around the hall - lights, glowing colors, levels of tables, chairs and champagne bottle holders merge into one awesome vibrant and astonishing blur. I encountered these feelings in the initial moment of my entrance into the hall and I was flabbergasted by the essence of grandeur. A young boy exiting the hall interrupted my splendid vision. I was amazed that youngsters were allowed to see the show, as indeed, the dancers were half-naked most of the time. As the show began, I realized that there was no vulgarity in the fact that they were half-naked. On the contrary, the multihued rhinestones and brilliant costumes that decorated the beautiful dancers extinguished any thought of tastelessness or inappropriateness.
"Feerie", choreographed by Bill Goodson, is an exhibition of the Moulin's vivacious and dynamic character. It includes four different dance scenes - each one more beautiful and glamorous than the previous - as well as talented acrobats, jugglers and a puppeteer who executed miraculous voice-overs with Scarlett, a little white poodle. From the first scene, it became apparent that while the Moulin can impress the audience with the magnificence of its 100 artist troupe, feathered and sequined costumes and extravagant backgrounds, the quality of the dancing did not live up to its reputation. Perhaps such as was the case in the late 19th Century when the dancers were non-professionals. But today, they must go through an audition process to meet the artistic, aesthetic and physical required qualities. So for the latter reason, I was surprised at the frequent lack of synchronicity and grace. It certainly could have been the choreography, which often ceased to complement the music. But again, the style of the Moulin is meant to be boisterous and wild so if that was the intention of the ballet mistress and choreographer, then they have achieved their purpose. The cancan scene was especially loud and rowdy as the Doriss (named after the ballet mistress) dancers screamed with delight and took turns leaping into splits. Even though the Cancan is acclaimed to be Moulin Rouge's immortalized dance, it seemed that only about 7 minutes of the show was dedicated to it and even when it was, it lacked the well-known chorus line that the cancan is famous for. While all of the dancers had mile-long, gorgeous legs, beautiful faces (although concealed by layers of stage make-up) and physically fit strong bodies, it was apparent that many lacked traditional classical ballet training and the most impressive and professionally executed movements included the hip walks that opened each dance and the proficient way that the dancers were able to manage the aesthetic display of the stunning costumes.
Nevertheless, the show contained several fantastic highlights that proved to make the 82-160 Euro price worth it. The second scene, known as Sandokan, included a Gorgon in her temple surrounded by snakes... at this point in the show, a giant aquarium elevates from beneath the stage and the beautiful dancer jumps into the pool, filled with two snakes (that were indeed, real). She frolics in the water, twirling, spinning and shocking the audience with her ability to perform these nautical feats while playing with the snakes. The acrobats and the juggler were also remarkable, but the puppeteer was truly one of a kind. His ability to shift voices was astounding as he even led little Scarlett into a conversation. Circus, the third scene, included six real miniature horses, led by six proud dancers, but the lion master did not bring out a real lion. The show culminated with a chronological account of Moulin Rouge from 1900. It was the final scene that paid tribute to Parisian women throughout the years - on the 14th of July for the Liberation of Paris, with Java or Boogie music for flappers and into today - the "New Generation" that is "living with passion everyday." The ultimate background is the year 2050 - in which a plethora of glitter, pink lighted feathers and acknowledgement to brilliant Paris conclude the show. The magnificence of the final moments of singing and dancing enchant the eye and as the curtain closed, I was left wide-eyed, still in wonder from this smorgasbord of effervescent display.
If you come for the 9 pm show (there are two shows every night), you can arrive two hours early to enjoy a splendid a la carte menu for up to 160 Euros. Created by star-awarded Chef, Laurent Tarridec, the menu selections range from Cold Rabbit Pate "Gavrouche" (on the French Cancan menu) to a choice of Baked Fillet of Seabass, Roasted Lamb or Beef Fillet (Menu Belle Epoque) or Carpaccio of Swordfish, Veal Chop with Champagne Cream Sauce (on the Menu Toulouse-Lautrec). Otherwise, delicious sparkling champagne is offered for the 11 pm showing.
Ultimately, the grandeur of the Moulin Rouge continues to vibrate in the heart of Paris, displaying the radiance in the aesthetic side of the show via its costumes, gorgeous dancers, special effects and backgrounds. All these qualities come together to make this show a continuous enticement for the international crowd of tourists.
Moulin Rouge dancers
Photo courtesy of J. Habas
Moulin Rouge dancers
Photo courtesy of J. Habas
Photo courtesy of J. Habas