One of the great Parisian institutions, the Moulin Rouge has been entertaining audiences since 1889 – and with photos inside strictly forbidden, it still retains a glamorous ‘Belle Époque’ allure even today. Here we bring you a sneak peek…
Words: Caroline Harrap
Of all the times to have lived in Paris, the late 1800s must surely have ranked among the best. With the countdown to the 1889 World Fair, there was a real frisson of excitement in the air; the city was being spruced up in readiness for an international audience; and at the heart of it all was a newly completed iron structure that would become the symbol for a whole new age. What is more, the magnificent Opera Garnier had only recently been completed, the Paris Metro was under way and the city’s arts were flourishing. Now known as the Belle Époque (“beautiful era”), it was a time of peace, progress and relative prosperity and an increasingly liberal Parisian society was in the mood to party.
Painting the town red
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that in October of that very same year, one of the city’s most legendary entertainment venues would throw open its doors, the Moulin Rouge, changing the face of cabaret forever. Named after the flamboyant ‘red windmill’ that decorated the roof, its daring shows, dubious morals and dazzlingly good dancing saw it become an immediate success. But what really sealed its reputation was that its talented troupe also performed a dance very different from those seen elsewhere – the now famous French Cancan – with its high kicks, frothy frills and flowing skirts. Suddenly, everyone wanted to see the show – from paupers and poets to princes.
Indeed, legend has it that when the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, came to watch the production, the star dancer of the day, ‘La Goulue’, shouted out to him: “Hey, Wales, the Champagne’s on you!” Whether that is true or not, who can say, but this unique cabaret, immortalised in the artworks of local resident Toulouse Lautrec, had already become a Paris institution.
Now firmly established as the most famous cabaret in the world, its allure shows no sign of abating with rave reviews, sell-out shows and some 600,000 visitors a year – who come to enjoy the sequins, spectacle and, yes, the sensuality of the show. Because, let’s be clear, there is upper-body nudity – and plenty of it. However, it’s all done very tastefully – and, in fact, on all the marketing material, it is proudly proclaimed that the show is suitable for a family audience – albeit at parents’ discretion. In any event, you soon forget that everyone is topless, because this rollercoaster ride of music-hall mayhem dazzles every sense.
In the latest incarnation of the show, Féerie, a troupe of 100 artists from all over the world perform twice each evening in a revue-style production made up of varying themes. Taking in the colourful history of the Moulin Rouge, the adventures of a pirate ship on exotic far-flung shores and the weird and wonderful world of the circus, it all culminates, of course, in what else but the famous fast-paced French cancan. From feathers, rhinestones and sparkles to pierrots, jugglers and acrobats to weird wild animals, a live orchestra and the seductive setting, it’s a variety show in the widest sense of the term.
“It’s thrilling, sexy funny and surreal – but, most of all, utterly joyful,” says the founder and CEO of VINGT Paris, Susie Hollands, who has long been a champion for the arts in Paris. “In fact, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the sheer silliness of it all. I love how it also resonates with the spirit of Montmartre – in its music-hall roots, the old-fashioned style of burlesque and the technicolour, Toulouse Lautrec style flamboyance. It’s so uplifting, crazy and French – I deny anyone not to enjoy it.”
A gourmet feast
And, of course, that’s not to mention the legendary hall ‘front of house’ where the audience gathers around elegant tables to enjoy gourmet French food. With four signature menus from which to choose, ‘Mistinguett’, ‘Toulouse-Lautrec’, ‘Belle Epoque’ and ‘VIP’, plus à la carte, pesco-vegetarian and vegan options, there is sure to be something for everyone. With the Champagne also flowing (some 240,000 bottles are consumed at the theatre each year), it’s a heady combination.
So, come dressed in your finest, and with an open mind, and you are guaranteed a memorable night out in the best tradition of Montmartre. Over a hundred years since later, it seems the spirit of the Belle Époque era is alive and well.
Le Crazy Horse,
12 avenue George V, Paris 75008
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116 avenue des Champs-Élysées, Paris 75008
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Au Lapin Agile
22 rue des Salues, Paris 75018
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