Paris: Kicking it at the Moulin Rouge
By Theadora Brack
Embracing ice skates, glitter, and sequins, this week, let’s glide on up to the Moulin Rouge, sitting pretty in the hills of Montmartre. That’s right. Get ready for some more time travel as smooth and exciting as a vintage Johnny Weir solid gold triple axel. He is still my hero. However, did you catch Yevgeny Plushenko shining like a diamond as he skated to the “Tango de Roxanne” from Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack (2001)? His quad toe / triple toe possessed mass appeal in my book. Love will lift us up where we belong! Indeed!
You will be missed, Monsieur.
Now, let’s grab soda pops at the nearby Monoprix, and commandeer a bench with a view of the centuries-old Moulin Rouge. Spirits are high and I’ve got a tale to spin. Lean in because it’s show-time.
A tale I often tell
“Life is beautiful; here comes the French Cancan!” artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec would shout out before the highly charged show within the Moulin Rouge’s pulsating walls. Built in 1889 by Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller (founder of the Nouveau Cirque—the first venue in Paris to offer the comfort of reclining seats!), the Moulin Rouge has remained the undisputed queen of cabaret dance halls and monarch of her neighborhood, Montmartre—where at one time as many as 30 windmills turned “as swiftly as the Parisians’ heads,” as one smitten Italian poet wrote.
Drunk in love
The eager crowd would rush the stage, forming a tight circle around the cancaneuses. Hemmed in by their aggressively courted fan base—sometimes six-deep—the dancers performed the quadrille naturaliste, always competing to see who could kick the highest with (but often without) pantaloons underneath their multiple layers of lacey petticoats, before climaxing with a final exuberant high split in mid-air!
Do an old-school dance
“Naked feet, and thighs, and arms, and breasts were being flung on me from bloody-red foam of translucent clothes,” wrote Andrey Bely in his 1906 letter to Alexander Blok about the “Tavern of Hell” at the Moulin Rouge, where lackeys dressed as devils, and dancers whirled demonically. Talk, talk about a show-stopper.
On the flip side
Dancer Jane Avril’s description of the scene reminded me of a poem or perhaps, perhaps my new spring wardrobe wish list: “The dancer’s skirts, some twelve metres in circumference, were of panels and frothy lace, as were the drawers. The effect of the black stockings against this snowy whiteness was to emphasize the shape of the legs.” Avril, Toulouse-Lautrec’s favorite red-haired muse, was the first to wear ruby red lipstick and vibrant-colored undergarments.
Here at the Moulin Rouge is also where the famed terpsichorean, La Goulue (the Glutton), another muse of Toulouse-Lautrec, made her debut. In Montmartre, she earned her moniker for swiping drinks and entrees from her audience while distracting them with her pantaloons and little pet goat.
“When I see my behind in these paintings, I find it quite beautiful!” she told Toulouse-Lautrec when she first saw his drawings of her.
Singer Yvette Guilbert wrote, “La Goulue, in black silk stockings, made the sixty yards of lace in her petticoats swirl and showed her drawers, with a heart coquettishly embroidered right in the middle of her little behind!” Toulouse-Lautrec mused, “When you saw her dance, you forgot her sins.”
Elephant Love Medley
Like the queen of Parisian sensuality, the early Moulin Rouge’s most remarkable feature was her derrière. Just on the other side of her main façade—in the secret garden that became not such a secret but an outdoor café during the summer months—stood an enormous stucco elephant. Originally constructed for the Exposition Universelle of 1889, any dandy with a franc to burn could climb a spiral staircase inside one of the elephant’s legs to the hollow belly of the beast to reach a small stage set adorned with red flags and banners. Sadly, when the Moulin Rouge was rebuilt after a fire in 1906, the elephant wasn’t called back for an encore; it mysteriously disappeared.
Le Strip Tease
The Cancan wasn’t the only dance born at the Moulin Rouge. Legend has it that on February 9, 1893, art students gathered at the music hall for their second annual Bal des Quat’z Arts. At midnight, an atelier model named Mona jumped up on a tabletop, and started removing her garments one by one, as she danced the Fandango, much to the sheer delight of her companions. Bump and grind, Le Strip Tease was born! However, it didn’t tickle everyone’s fancy.
Because haters are gonna hate: Mona was arrested, setting off a series of student protests in the Latin Quarter. After a bystander was fatally injured during one of the harrowing tumults, the government relented and apologized, setting Mona free. Like wildfire, word spread about the new craze, and soon other Paris music halls followed suit, adding a little “artistic nudity” to their repertoire of titillating skits.
Fast and Forward: In 1907, writer Colette caused a few commotions of her own when she shared an onstage kiss with the Marquise de Belbeuf at the Moulin Rouge during her Rêve d’Égypte” pantomime, and performed topless at the Folies-Bergère. In fact, she was one of the first to bare it all. “Boredom helps one make decisions,” Colette quipped. By the 1920s, prancing in the buff was the norm in most Paris clubs. Josephine Baker’s 1926 debut at the Folies-Bergère sealed the deal. Wearing only a banana skirt, black Kohl eyeliner by Helena Rubinstein, and a “smile to end all smiles,” a star was born. Yes, we have no bananas!
All that glitters
Despite many major and minor modifications and reconstructions through the years, the Moulin Rouge has steadily flourished. Today a single show may involve 1,000 costumes, 800 kilos of shoes, and 60 kilos of paste jewelry and glitter. The little “Red Mill’s” creaky wooden stage and plaster of Paris walls have seen the likes of Edith Piaf, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Yvette Guilbert (Madame Arthur), Mistinguett (Queen of the Music Hall), and Cab Calloway—just to name a few.
Star Power: Numerous movies have been made about the the historic music hall, including John Huston’s 1952 Moulin Rouge (starring José Ferrer and Zsa-Zsa Gabor), Réne Clair’s 1925 Fantôme du Moulin Rouge, Ewald André Dupont’s 1928 Moulin Rouge, Jean Renoir’s 1954 Le French Cancan, and Baz Luhrmann’s particularly exuberant 2001 Moulin Rouge, with Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman.
Scrubbed clean and almost family friendly but not to everyone’s liking!
In 1950, remorseful co-founder Charles Zidler wrote, “I liked the Moulin Rouge as she was, lighthearted and hot-blooded, a little strumpet who thought only of tonight. Now she is grown up and knows better. She has money in her stocking, wears corsets, and never drinks a drop too much. Worst of all, she never sees her old friends anymore. She has gone into society!”
Clipping from Colette, “Be happy. It’s one way of being wise.”