Ladies and Gentlemen: The Moulin Rouge!

Ladies and Gentlemen: The Moulin Rouge!

An inside look at Paris’ legendary titillating cabaret.

Ladies and Gentlemen: The Moulin Rouge!

Known as Paris’ most glamorous nightclub with frills and thrills for daring patrons, the Moulin Rouge is every musical theater fanatic’s dream to attend, including yours truly. Like many others, I first fell in love with the historical cabaret after watching Baz Luhrmann’s ostentatious silver screen spectacle of the same name (with the added exclamation point). That’s why on my study abroad program’s trip to Paris, I shelled out the $115 Euros admission fee with no second thoughts and went to see if my triple-tiered expectations aligned with the reality of “The Red Windmill.” After bracing myself for a bewitching two hours of burlesque nudity, what I actually walked away from was the greatest Broadway-meets-circus performance I have ever seen and have no hope of finding anywhere else. On the down side, it’s against Moulin Rouge policy to photograph or film of any part of the show – I even noticed a few rule-breakers escorted out of the theater so you know they’re serious. So for those of you itching to know the show’s red-hot secrets, allow me to transport you to a typical evening at the Moulin Rouge.

Setting the Stage

Image courtesy of The Daily Mail.

In Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, the “spectacular spectacular” set of the Moulin Rouge looks almost too good to be true. Well, in some ways it is. For instance, the real cabaret in Paris’ Montmartre district does not feature an iron gate that leads into a courtyard with a colossal elephant planted in the middle. Although, after doing some research, I did discover that the original Moulin Rouge around 1889 (the year when the film takes place) did have a boxed-in garden with a small, wooden stage and – you guessed it – a life-size hollow elephant that served as an opium den and Arabic nightclub where the filthy rich threw money at belly dancers. Classy stuff.

Back to the present, patrons emerging from Blanche metro station are still greeted by the iconic crimson-and-black windmill perched above a dazzling ‘Moulin Rouge’ marquis. This windmill has been the blazing beacon of Paris’ red light district for 127 years; luring passersby with its toxic glow like moths drawn to an electric bug zapper. The dress code was surprisingly lax considering our tickets explicitly stated that shabby patrons who turned up in flip-flops or shorts would not be allowed entrance. Some other rules we were warned about included: no smoking, keep your cellphones on silent and minors under the age of six must be accompanied by an adult. I even glimpsed one lucky little boy oogling the dancers in the V.I.P. section. Don't worry, I'm sure he'll grow up to have a healthy sex life. The security was so tight that my friends and I had to go through at least four different ticket checkpoints as well as a pat-down before finally crossing the threshold.

Image courtesy of The Daily Mail.

Inside the Moulin Rouge is, admittedly, rather cramped but still bursting with luxury. On our way in we passed a gift shop selling jewelry, feather headdress and cutlery among other things. A flight of stairs then opened up to the ground floor facing the stage and a balcony over top where my friends and I were guided to sit. A mess of spindly-legged tables with white tablecloths were sprawled across every inch of the place, leaving the wait staff very little room to deliver buckets of champagne and wine glasses to guests (no cocktails). The claustrophobic crowd buzzed with anticipation and a sea of winking lamps crowned every table to help set the sultry mood. It wasn’t long before our drinks came and a hush fell over the cabaret as all eyes watched the stage curtains slither open.

The Performance

Image courtesy of Emme Raus.

I blinked twice and a flock of radiant, sequined dancers appeared, charging in from all directions in tight formations. A controlled mania overtook the stage and the audience gave in to the show’s magnetic aura. A troupe of male and female dancers ranging from 20’s to 40’s flirted with the crowd, but the women were always the stars of the Moulin Rouge. Pristinely packaged with manicured movements, they tossed their curls and wore tropical smiles in between bursts of red, orange, pink and purple lipstick. I noticed a fair range of body types too: slender and willowy, curvy and toned – no unhealthy greyhound ribs in sight. The men were just as glossy and agile, but they stayed confined to their corners and made more room for the ladies.

As far as I could tell the show was divided into three parts: exotic countries, circus and wild showgirls. The first third borrowed (some might say appropriated) traditional dances and music from India, Asia and Russia. The Indian-inspired numbers had women dressed as harem dancers sashaying around Maharajas and went on to form a Medusa-type cult of dancers. Later on, women in short, cropped wigs and body-hugging Mandarin gowns appeared alongside a fake Chinese dragon, and to top it off men sporting fur hats and long, black boots launched into the iconic Russian squat dance.

Image courtesy of The Moulin Rouge.

The performance then migrated into the second act: circus – a delightful combination of playful hijinks and sex appeal that the Moulin Rouge somehow successfully pulls off. This part touched on some really fun concepts including dominatrix ringmasters, clown shenanigans, a mock marching band and lion tamers disciplining wild lionesses. The calliope music was brassy but fun and I give the Moulin Rouge full marks for turning a family-friendly activity like the circus into an adult-only treat.

For a little while the show took an interesting detour into what appeared to be 20th century America. Pilots in bomber jackets and 50’s housewives busted out some simple party moves before promiscuous flight attendants and go-go dancers kicked the choreography up a notch. Up until this point the music had all been in French, but the Moulin Rouge threw the American audience a bone when a trio of shimmering Liza Minnelli-esque women strutted on stage and belted Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

Image courtesy of The Moulin Rouge.

By this point we were all dumbfounded by the mélange of musical theater thus far, and wondered if anything else could possibly top what we had already seen. So you can imagine the uproar when the scintillating showgirls brought the routine home with a rousing rendition of Moulin Rouge’s famous can-can dance. People stomped and clapped as women flounced out in ruffled skirts, looking like a bouquet of crumpled, rainbow carnations. To the crowd’s delight, they kicked and shrieked and flashed their bloomers underneath while short men in electric blue suits performed flawless cartwheels, back flips and splits. The nonstop fun finally ended when a troop of flamingo-feathered women dashed back on stage and joined the men in high-kicking their way into the curtain call.

What's really crazy though is when you put it into perspective that this spectacle is performed three times a night back-to-back at 7, 9 and 11 p.m. seven days a week. Let’s just say that my final thought as I combed my way out of that theater was, “These poor people need a raise.”

The Stunts

Image courtesy of The Moulin Rouge.

Scoff all you want, but I swear I'm not exaggerating when I say that the stunt work at the Moulin Rouge definitely rivals Cirque de Solei. The two-hour long extravaganza had no lulls or intermissions, so to give the dancers time to prepare for the next big ensemble number, a series of small duo acts took the stage for a few minutes or so. These acts featured a male and female team of roller skaters and gymnasts that accomplished feats I thought weren’t humanly possible. The roller skating team performed on top of a 5-foot diameter wooden circle and lapsed in and out of spirals while ricocheting off each other like astronauts on the International Space Station. The gymnasts on the other hand consisted of a buff man and a teeny woman who, among other things, did headstands off of her partner’s head while he performed sit-ups.

Two aerialists also glided out on a track at one point, wearing orange and green neon suits and drifting past us like EDM ghosts. Oddly enough, a veteran ventriloquist even slipped into the lineup and charmed his way through three acts featuring puppets, a live dog and volunteers from the audience as his assistants.

Image courtesy of Paris Insiders Guide.

Some of the stunt work wasn’t even human, that is to say they brought out trained animals. This included a group of miniature ponies who trotted out during the circus act on harnesses led by seductive, female jockeys. Instead of saddles, the ponies even sported tiny feather plumes sprouting off their backs and cantered off stage at the end of their number.

But by far the most mind-blowing exploit was when the stage slid out to make room for a rising swimming pool underneath a la It’s a Wonderful Life – except this pool was teeming with 8-foot long snakes thrashing around at the audience’s eye-level! These snakes came into play in a dramatic and somewhat funny scene where a topless “virgin” is hoisted up and sacrificed into the pool of serpents. She turns out to have secret snake-charming abilities though and weaves in and out of their rippling bodies with ease. After holding her breath under water for an impressive amount of time, the dancer emerged victorious with a snake draped around her shoulders like a scaly boa. What alarmed me the most though was when the swimming pool sank back into the floor and the snake charmer and her "pets" stayed in it while the stage covered them back up. How did she escape?

Costumes and Nudity

Image courtesy of The Moulin Rouge.

Without a doubt, one of the highlights of the so-called “Palace of Women” is the carousel of at least 50 costumes changes that are just as much a part of the ensemble as the dancers. The stage was a constant zoo of women in lollipop-colored couture with men hanging off their arms like glittery accessories. It began with women in tie-dye skirts and tops strewn from pearls striking their best bird-of-paradise poses, and went all the way through to divas with giant Alice-in-Wonderland flowers on their backs, looking like a chorus line of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings.

Apart from some eye-popping backdrops of romantic Paris landmarks, the set, like the cast, stayed pretty bare. Although I have to admit that for a burlesque show the nudity was surprisingly tame. In the beginning women pranced around in sparkly thongs and proudly bore tiny breasts with perky nipples. But as the show went on the costumes and choreography became less erotic and more masterful in their precision and technicality. By the time the finale rolled around, women were sporting puffy, amoeba-shaped jellyfish costumes that glowed in the dark – definitely more artsy than pornographic.

Meanwhile, it seemed as though the more layers women took off the more male dancers put on. I’m not kidding; the most male nudity I saw was a smattering of washboard abs in one scene! These men literally wore pants the entire show and there were even some costumes that looked like something I could have scrounged up at the Dad section of a Halloween store. At last, after watching range of comical male outfits pass by – cops, clowns, pirates, waiters, Maharajahs and ringmasters to name a few – I got the sense that the male performers were mainly there to serve as props for the women rather than eye-candy for the audience.

Image courtesy of The Moulin Rouge.

However, it should be noted that these wonderful costume designers not only avoided slutty clichés (no schoolgirls or nurses at this show) but somehow managed to make the most bizarre characters seem sexy. During the circus number for example, two women in a stretchy Siamese twin dress tumbled through a series of slapstick antics that had men laughing and adjusting their pants tents. Likewise, when women weren’t dressed as gypsies, flappers or Medusa’s minions, they were parading around as clowns, 50’s housewives and even marching band members. This creative dedication to burlesque fashion must have required weeks of sewing and design, not to mention several test-runs to see if the outfits could hold up to the high-energy performance. It's reason enough to see the show if you ask me.

Before I witnessed all the glamour and glitz of the Moulin Rouge though, my classmates and I wandered around Paris for five days, and I can definitely say that I left with more than a few life-changing experiences. The monuments were breathtaking, the Seine was romantic and the museums were fascinating – but to me, a trip to Paris can never be complete without the exhilarating rush of a night spent at the Moulin Rouge. For this is where the night creatures of Paris come out to play and it never hurts to indulge them once in a while.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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