Posts Tagged ‘moulin rouge’

lautrec-moulin-rouge-la-goulue-poster-1891Over 600,000 people will visit the Moulin Rouge in Paris this year, which turns 125 years old this week.  The birthplace of the high-kicking burlesque dance known as the French cancan quickly became a favourite haunt of Parisian high society after it opened in 1889.  Once the focal point of a great artistic and sexual awakening, it is now a place for tour groups, open seven days a week.  The place gives tourists a glimpse of what it must have been like to live in La Belle Epoque – the courtesans, patrons, painters and artists that hung out here – sexy bohemians lingering and mingling beneath the turn of its iconic windmill.   But was it actually as sexy and cool as we think?

The quick answer is no. The Moulin Rouge was driven by money as much as sex.  Contrary to popular belief, the ‘cancan’ wasn’t even invented at the Moulin Rouge.  Cancan had existed since the 1830s and was far more respectable before the Moulin Rouge’s time.  Of course it could get rowdy, but was essentially just a high-kicking dance for couples in working class ballrooms, with little to no knicker-flashing.  When the Moulin Rouge first opened its doors 1889, it took this little dance from tucked away ballrooms and put it on stage for all the world to see. The reason for this was practical – the dancers of the early Moulin Rouge were courtesans with high-end clients, and so this dance evolved into an ad for their services of seduction.  The Moulin Rouge’s version of the dance must have seemed shocking in the 1890s compared to the token show-stopping affair it is today, but at the time it would have appeared tame next to the nightlife at the Nouvelle-Athènes club or La Chat Noir – the real bohemian haunts in the crowded streets nearby.



As the shock of the cancan wore off, the dance grew more racy, and if ‘freedom’ and ‘love’ were the true stars at the Cabaret, it was not exactly the romantic type.  The images that survive the era give us insight into what it was really like there.  In Le Danse (1890, above) Toulouse-Latrec, portrays a scene that contradicts our image of wild unbridled entertainment that shows us the oppressively bourgeois scene at the Moulin Rouge.  Even as the drunk girl lifts her skirts and dances with life and vigour (a figure identical to the one in the famous poster above), everyone else looks just plain bored.   Men circle the dance floor not even joining in on the action.  The woman in the pink dress appears half asleep, contemplating how soon she she can go home.

It would be unfair to assume the Moulin Rouge is today what it was then – to imagine the top-hatted men and knicker flashing ladies as a busload of foreign tourists who continue to turn up in droves at the cabaret 125 years later.  But there is a sense that adventurousness was the real attraction – ‘truth, beauty, freedom and love’ were available, for a price.   High society could make their way into Montmartre for the night, mingle with some “real” bohemian outsiders, gasp in shock and gossip all the way back to their mundane lives.





The history of sex in the west has a mirror in the art-world of burlesque.  Today, most see it as a bawdy comedy combined with a striptease finale.  And its true that it comes from the Italian word ‘burlesco’ or ‘burla’, meaning a joke or mockery.  But with so much to mock in Victorian England, burlesque was quite popular in London theatres from the 1830s to the 1890s.  It parodied serious theatre offerings like Shakespeare, often twisting the original scores by re-writing them with comedy lyrics.  Today, burlesque has gone through an international revival, regaining some of its status – but what is the story of burlesque?

The Victorian burlesque style was taken to New York in the 1840s.  Women wore tights, scandalous in the Victorian era.  A woman-run production that showed under-dressed hotties masquerading as sexually charged fathers and brothers, pushed boundaries.  And they were a sensation!  Public outcry and efforts to prohibit these shows simply fueled the public’s demand for more.  As New York burlesque shows were beginning to blend with the minstrel shows, the minstrel element of the shows also gave way to a new generation of black performers.  In 1890, The Creole Show débuted and re-shaped the minstrel all-male tradition with female cast members.  Other show such as Oriental America provided a scathing social commentary of America at home and abroad.
Back in London, by 1890, burlesque’s popularity had faded in favor of more wholesome fare.  Meanwhile, in Paris they had their own version of the chorus line with the can-can dance.  In the Follies Bergere and the Moulin Rouge, burlesque became striptease with ever more elaborate costumes.  Back in New York, ‘The First Real Queen of American Burlesque’ Millie DeLeon, who had a flair for the dramatic, would ‘accidentally’ forget her tights and get arrested.

Striptease came into its own during 1920s burlesque when film and radio began to rival Vaudeville. At places like The Ziegfeld Follies, the flow of booze fueled the attraction to the risqué shows.  This scene grew and led to the elevation of the art form in the 1930s as seen in the work of Josephine Baker.  In the 1940s the heavy hand of censorship struck down during wartime America.   The  world of Burlesque would be marginalized for many decades, until the 1990s when it went through a renaissance.  Today you can find major events that showcase burlesque’s high-art status in the places that invented it – London, Paris, New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New Orleans.