The Moulin Rouge, Paris – May 2015
Inside the Moulin Rouge theater, I’m immersed in the colour red in a way I had never experienced. The deep red velvet covering nine hundred chairs of audience seating, the matte red accents on the images of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous paintings, the faded red stripes on the swaths of fabric scalloping over the ceiling like a circus tent, and the glowing red lamps that light each table. The theatricality of the colour and decor is even more striking under the theater’s house lights, turned on full this afternoon. I’m sitting at one of the tables, considered the theater’s ‘front row’, a little over arms-length from the stage where some of the Moulin Rouge’s principal dancers were rehearsing. They were plainly dressed in leotards and t-shirts, revealing their unadorned beauty and their long, long legs.
Amanda, one of the principal dancers, rose up from penché, suspending her elevated leg teasingly before lowering it to the ground. Her lightness and lines show years of ballet training until, she later tells me, she “became too tall for ballet.” This is her ninth year dancing at the Moulin and since she left her home in Australia. Denis, who is partnered with her in this rehearsal, is originally from Romania and has been dancing at the Moulin for fifteen years. His father was a ballet dancer at the Bucharest National Opera and his sister is a ballerina with the Vienna State Opera. Denis trained at the ballet academy of the Vienna State Opera, but he liked Latin dance and Hip-Hop more and began dancing in cabaret shows. He anchored himself readily behind Amanda and clasped her hand in preparation for the lift.
“How quickly should I bring the leg down?” Amanda asked Erik Sorensen, former Moulin dancer and the theater’s resident choreographer, who was running the rehearsal. He stood in front of Amanda and Denis, and observed attentively. “If I bring it down slowly in two counts,” she continued, “he’ll catch my leg…here…and we’ll go right into the lift. If you want the legs to meet before the lift…” she swept her leg up once more and brought it down swiftly to demonstrate. It’s a difference of only two counts, but it can affect the fluidity of the phrase and synchronization with other dancers in the number. Erik demands precision from the dancers.
“Watch the angle of the hips,” instructed Erik over the music, while showing the dancers the specific posture. We moved to the theater’s studio for the second part of the rehearsal. It’s about the size of an aerobics studio with mirrors on two sides and gym equipment lined along the others; the walls are painted a quirky pastel-green. Erik is tidying a phrase in the show’s catchy opening number, ‘Danse Danse, Paris Danse’, which features the full cast in dazzling, white-sequined jump suits. “Don’t drop the chest. Keep it up when you bounce – like this,” as he sprang into the choreography to demonstrate.
“When I started learning the choreography,” said Brett Trach, from Canada, who joined the Moulin Rouge one year ago, “one of the dancers told me: ‘Don’t over think it, it’s just a step-touch, step-step.'” A few days earlier, Brett and I sat down for lunch after taking ballet class together at a studio in the 11th arrondissement. “In contemporary dance, there’s a lot of emphasis on the intention behind each movement, or abstract concepts like, ‘I’m inspired by the colour red,'” and we both laughed in agreement. “It’s not like that in show dancing.” Brett danced in classical ballet and contemporary dance companies, and on cruise ships, before auditioning for the Moulin. “It sounds cheesy, but I had a note to myself on the wall of my cruise ship cabin that I was going to dance at the Moulin Rouge. It just seemed like an amazing place to perform; it’s the most famous cabaret in the world!”
“Yeah, it was pretty surreal to pack up and move to Paris.” Brett said, of his first days on the job. “They flew me in on a Saturday. I watched the show for the first time that night then had my first rehearsal on Monday. A few other guys were hired at the same time for the ‘Boy’s Line’ – that’s my role; we’re the dancers around the principals. We rehearsed for two and a half weeks, five hours a day, Monday to Saturday. Every night I’d go home, listen to the music and practice. Really, it took about two months for the choreography to settle into the body. The Cancan is the hardest,” then a wide grin spread across Brett’s face, “but it’s my favourite!”
The French Cancan, the iconic dance born out of the Moulin Rouge, is a frenetic flurry of high kicks, jumps, acrobatics and more high kicks, driven by Offenbach’s galloping tune. “In ballet, you turn your hips out, but the Cancan is in done parallel,” explained Brett. “Then, you bend your knees a little and whack your leg up and down,” he said, mimicking the motion with his arm. “There are way more kicks on the right leg than the left. I think all Moulin dancers become lopsided, with a large right glut,” he laughed. “Oh, and I’d NEVER done a jump split before I came here!” he said excitedly, of the jump that lands sitting in splits with one leg in front and one behind. “So, I think of it as foot-crotch-hand, then pose; it happens very fast. The heel of your front leg lands first, then you slide into splits, you put your hand on the ground, and then you pose – and smile!”
More than a just a facial expression, the smiles of these Moulin dancers seem to bubble up from genuinely sunny personalities – even a tiring rehearsal won’t hamper a good laugh. Back at the studio, while Erik was rehearsing with the women, one of the male dancers began choreographing a modern dance routine, full of Martha Graham-inspired posturing and audible breaths, which brought the other dancers to giggles. Meanwhile, the women were finding it hard to keep up with the tempo of the music, which had been gradually increasing until it suddenly reached a frantic pace. They shot glares at the chuckling pranksters, Denis and another male dancer, who were manning the stereo, then everyone burst into laughter.
“If you’re not feeling happy yourself,” said Brett, “it shows, and the audience knows. It’s our job to give the audience a good show, so that they leave feeling happy. Of course, some days I just don’t feel it. But, when I hear the music, and I’m surrounded by the beautiful girls and beautiful costumes, and the energy from the audience, I can’t not feel happy!”
Even Denis, who has been dancing in the current show, Féerie, for all fifteen years he has been at the Moulin, still gets excited before each performance. “I love the interaction with the audience, and I know the show is a special experience for them,” he tells me during a break in rehearsal. “Yes, I perform six days a week, two shows a night, but the directors rotate you around the different choreography, so I have danced many roles within the show. ” His favourite number is “the finale, the pink one, because it’s so nice and beautiful, and I’m in the middle surrounded by beautiful girls!”
Amanda is one such beauty and she speaks adoringly of her costumes. We chat after rehearsal. “Yes, the plumes are beautiful,” she said of the long, willowy feathers dangling from the peacock-like frames that the dancers wear, one of which lights up. “That one is worn like a backpack and holds a battery. It used to be very heavy, about 15 kilos! The straps would dig into my shoulders and it was very painful! I’m so glad they’ve improved the technology so it’s much lighter now.”
“I have about twelve costume changes. As principal dancers, we’re very lucky because we have personal dressers,” Amanda said happily. She takes her mishaps in stride. “I’ve fallen off the stage before. I don’t even remember how it happened, but I landed on one of the tables in the front; luckily it was empty. I got back on stage as quickly as I could, but, you’re in costume, so you can’t just climb up with your butt to the audience,” she said with a laugh. “You kind of have to sit on the edge of the stage, then gracefully swing your legs up.” She’s delighted to wear the exquisite costumes every night, even though, she confessed, “those rhinestone G-strings – they’re not comfortable at all!”
For Brett, the demands of the job seem to motivate him even more. “I get home from the theater a little after 2am. Just think, when you’re in bed, I’m still on stage kicking my legs in the air!” he said gleefully, then added, “I’m really proud to be a dancer at the Moulin. It’s bigger than anything I’ve ever done.”
Each night at 7:30, the dancers of the Moulin Rouge arrive at the theater and prepare for the night’s two performances. They take about 45 minutes to warm-up and another half an hour or so getting into costumes and make-up. It’s the last step in many of the dancers’ preparations that go into creating moments of reverie onstage, for which the Moulin has become so famous. Whether it has been one year or fifteen years, each performance is as special to you as it is to them.