Moulin Rouge celebrates 130 years of high-kicking cancans

Backstage at the Moulin Rouge: Adrenaline, nudity and 1,000 costume changes per show at Parisian cabaret celebrating 130 years of high-kicking cancans

  • 600,000 audience members watch the show every year and quaff 250,000 bottles of champagne
  • Each show requires 1,000 outfits, all crafted in workshops supplying the Moulin Rouge for decades
  • Critics say some aspects of the performance are out of step with modern times but it still delights audiences

The Moulin Rouge, the French cabaret famous for its scantily-clad high-kicking cancan dancers, this week marks 130 years since it first opened its doors to audiences.

For two performances every evening, 60 performers from 14 different countries twirl, kick and dance their way through the ‘Feerie’ show, the revue that is now the mainstay of the Moulin Rouge’s repertoire.

But backstage – unseen by the 600,000 audience members who watch the show each year and quaff their way through nearly a quarter of a million bottles of champagne – is a different kind of choreography; the sophisticated machinery of costume changes and scenery-pulling needed to make the show happen.

French Cancan soloist Olga Khokhlova, a dancer from ex-Soviet Kazakhstan, performs at the Moulin Rouge in Paris as the famous cabaret celebrates its 130 birthday this week

The sun sets on the iconic Parisian windmill which has titillated audiences with its scantily-clad dancers and flourishing cancans for decades

Dancers Courtney and Lacie wait for their next set in the corridors as they perform in the revue ‘Feerie’, a mainstay of the cabaret house

‘The whole team including dancers, aides and technicians need to be very organised,’ said Claudine Van Den Bergh, a 27-year-old Irish dancer who has been dancing at the Moulin Rouge for seven years and has been principal for three years.

‘A little mistake or a little delay and you can miss your entrance. You really need to be at the right time at the right place.’

Each show requires 1,000 outfits, all crafted in the workshops that have been supplying the Moulin Rouge for decades. 

Each show requires 1,000 outfits, all crafted in the workshops that have been supplying the Moulin Rouge for decades

Each dancer has to make between 10 and 15 costume changes per show, with about 90 seconds to complete each one before they have to be back out on stage

An employee pushes a trolley in the cellar with some of the 250,000 champagne bottles drunk every year at the cabaret

The multicoloured costumes, many encrusted in rhinestones, have been laid out in order by an army of assistants where rows of pink feather boas hang on rails

Waiters prepare the tables before the first show of the evening of the ‘Feerie’, the resident stage show. Every show at the cabaret has been titled with a name beginning with the letter F

Pink and black thigh-high leather boots, with sequin decoration, hang from racks backstage at the ‘Red Mill’ in the north of Paris

Each dancer has to make between 10 and 15 costume changes per show, with about 90 seconds to complete each one before they have to be back out on stage.

Every time a number finishes out on stage, the same scenario is repeated. The troupe of dancers rushes backstage. 

There, the multicoloured costumes, many encrusted in rhinestones, have been laid out in order by an army of assistants. Rows of pink feather boas hang from rails.

Pink and black thigh-high leather boots, with sequin decoration, hang from racks. Elaborate constructions which go over the dancer’s shoulders and create the illusion they have sparkling butterfly wings and ostrich feathers sprouting from their backs, sit in rows on tables.

Jessica, Shauna and Lauren attend a rehearsal where they learn the steps of the 1,000 costume changes required every show

Shoemaker Marion Leclout works on the special Moulin Rouge boots at the Clairvoy workshop in the French capital

Each dancer heads to the costume they require. While they change, technicians shift the scenery in time for the next number.

The dancers are changed in an instant. Then, the troupe rush back out onstage into the glare of the footlights. Without a pause, the costume assistants backstage put away the outfits that the dancers removed, then lay out a new set of outfits so they are ready for the next costume change and the next number. 

‘At the moment I rush out to the backstage, I know exactly where to go, what to do, where my next costume is for the next part,’ said Claudine.

The performances at the Moulin Rouge still hold true to the traditions established at the cabaret’s founding on October 6, 1889, when women who made a living washing linen by day transformed themselves into dancers at night.

Claudine Van Den Bergh, 27, has been dancing at the Moulin Rouge for seven years and has been Principal for three years

Dancers attend the yearly high-intensity rehearsal with choreographer Bill Goodson and this week they will be performing two shows a night

Critics say some aspects of the performance – especially the fact that many of the female dancers are topless or wear see-through costumes – is a sexist objectification that is out of step with modern times

Olga Khokhlova, from Kazakhstan, has been at the Moulin Rouge for 12 years. She says: ‘I love the adrenaline of the stage. The Moulin is a magical place where I live out my passion’

(From left to right) Megan, Alexandre, Courtney, Reece, Jonah and Jessica are seen in the backstage of the Moulin Rouge

The performances at the Moulin Rouge still hold true to the traditions established at the cabaret’s founding on October 6, 1889

A dressmaker checks and fixes a costume for the Moulin Rouge ‘Feerie’ at a workshop. The show premiered in 1999

The cabaret began when women who made a living washing linen by day transformed themselves into dancers at night

One of them, La Goulue (gluttonous), flanked by her partner Valentin-le-desoss’e (boneless Valentin), were among dancers painted by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec on Moulin Rouge advertising posters at the end of the 19th century.

The shows featured dancers with stage names such as Nini Pattes en l’air (Nini legs in-the-air), Rayon d’or (golden ray) and La Sauterelle (Grasshopper). Nowadays, Olga, Jasmine, Claudine or Esmeralda shine on stage.

Critics say some aspects of the performance – especially the fact that many of the female dancers are topless or wear see-through costumes – are a sexist objectification that is out of step with modern times.

To mark the Moulin Rouge’s 125th anniversary, in 2014, two activists from feminist group Femen climbed onto the theatre’s roof and shouted that women’s bodies should not be for sale.

For Olga Khokhlova, a dancer from ex-Soviet Kazakhstan who performs a cancan solo and has been at the Moulin Rouge for 12 years, the spirit of the cabaret is timeless.

‘I love the adrenaline of the stage. The Moulin is a magical place where I live out my passion,’ she said. ‘When I’m on stage, I know that I am the inheritor of famous dancers who for 130 years have made the Moulin Rouge.’

French Cancan soloist Olga Khokhlova poses in a car as she arrives at the Moulin Rouge prior to dancing in the ‘Feerie’ revue

French cancan shoes are seen at the Clairvoy shoemaker workshop. The cancan became a popular music hall dance in the 1840s, continuing in popularity in French cabaret to this day

Dancer Amanda waits to enter the famous stage which has delighted audiences including French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec for 130 years

The shows featured dancers with stage names such as Nini Pattes en l’air (Nini legs in-the-air), Rayon d’or (golden ray) and La Sauterelle (Grasshopper)

Without a pause, the costume assistants backstage put away the outfits that the dancers removed then lay out a new set of outfits so they are ready for the next costume change and the next number

Drawings of Moulin Rouge costumes for the ‘Feerie’ revue are seen pinned on the wall at the Clairvoy shoemaker workshop in Paris

600,000 audience members watch the show each year and quaff their way through nearly a quarter of a million bottles of champagne

How the Moulin Rouge became the home of cabaret

The Moulin Rouge was built at a time of peace and prosperity in Paris during what is known as the Belle Epoque. 

The mill was built in the same year as the Eiffel Tower for the Exposition Universelle, a world fair which marked 100 years since the fateful storming of the Bastille.

The Moulin Rouge was designed as a place for those of all walks of life to rub shoulders and enjoy the bawdy entertainment. 

The Moulin Rouge is one of Paris’s main tourist attractions but is best known as the birthplace of the modern cancan dance

It was immediately loved by artists, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec whose posters and paintings secured rapid and international fame for the cabaret.

In 1890, the future Edward VII and then Prince of Wales was on a private visit to Paris and booked a table at the cabaret. 

Upon recognising him, famous dancer La Goulue, with one leg in the air and her head in her skirt, said: ‘Hey, Wales, the champagne’s on you!’

In 1915, it was destroyed by a fire but reopened in 1921. It has since welcomed Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli, Edith Piaf and Elton John on its famous stage. 

It is now one of Paris’s main tourist attractions but is best known as the birthplace of the modern cancan dance.

The music hall routine was originally a seductive dance by the courtesans who operated at the site in the north of Paris near Montmartre.

Now the dance has evolved into an entertainment of its own and led to the introduction of cabaret acts all over Europe.

 

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