The Moulin Rouge experience!

Sara Colohan
Me dressing up for Moulin Rouge night in Paris!

EDITORIAL FOR life magazine

I grew up in a small town in Galway, a far cry from the glitzy cabarets I work on nowadays! Like most kids from a provincial town, I was fascinated by fashion and glamour and always wanted to work in the area. I’ve been lucky enough to build a career in fashion and stage production and after spending most of last year producing shows in the West End, I’ve come home to focus on my burlesque cabaret show The Tassel Club! It’s exciting to see how Irish audiences have unequivocally embraced burlesque and The Tassel Club is really enjoying its pre eminent status as the sexiest cabaret show around! Ironically, it’s this flattering accolade that puts a lot of pressure on me to keep up production standards! I’m constantly looking for inspiration for the shows and travel abroad quite often in search of unique exotic stars to bring to the Irish stage! On a recent trip, I visited the very heart of erotic cabaret – arguably the most famous club on the planet, The Moulin Rouge. Ireland’s leading showgirl and star performer at The Tassel Club, Mz Epiphany de Meanour came with me to check out what her Parisian counterparts were getting up to.

The Moulin Rouge has been flashing high class flesh for over a hundred years and I can tell you, it isn’t showing any signs of covering up! I‘ve tried to visualise The Tassel Club mirroring it’s gruelling schedule of two shows a day, employing sixty five full time dancers and running for a hundred years! I’ve managed to bolster my confidence by concluding that the original Moulin Rouge owners could never have predicted their clubs’ success when they first started out! In fact, considering how so called ‘respectable’ French society frowned on and venomously condemned the club in its formative years, it’s to be heartily applauded for managing to cement its status as an internationally venerated French institution drawing more than 600 000 spectators through its doors every year. I read up a little on the club‘s history before my visit and was amazed at the myriad of stars who’ve tread its’ well worn boards. Unique performers like La Goulue, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgearld and Frank Sinatra all performed there and of course, it was also the subject of many paintings by post impressionist artist Henri de Toulouse Lautrec. La Goulue was the subject of Lautrec’s first Moulin Rouge poster and possibly the first ever reported Can Can performer. Her infamous act involved grabbing drinks from the audience (permitted or not!) and getting as drunk as possible during her audacious saucy, high kicking dance routine! She thrilled and I’m sure frightened the life out of audiences by launching a series of high kicks, targeting and knocking off men’s hats!

Kittie Kittie Kan Kan, our own can can troupe might try and re in act that performance some night at The Tassel Club, but I’ll have to warn my insurance company first! En route to The Moulin Rouge we detoured via The Ritz hotel. Epiphany is a huge fan of burlesque goddess Dita Von Teese, and as Dita had recently named the Parisian Ritz her favourite hotel we just had to pay a visit! Just as you’d expect, The Ritz gives you the royal treatment even if your budget doesn’t stretch past afternoon tea! We were whisked off to a private salon where we stuffed ourselves with mini cream √©clairs and cheese cake! With little regard for the tight squeeze into our laced up finery for the show later on we finished off the last of the cakes and joked that an extra tight tug on the corset strings would be in order after our shameless indulgence! We were both pretty excited as it was our very first visit to the club.

When we arrived at District 18, I could see straight away that The Pigalle district is to Paris what Soho is to London, a rundown assortment of adult entertainment businesses. The Moulin Rouge is a veritable national treasure but sits aside tacky strip clubs and countless sex shops in an incongruous mix of city planning. If the truth be told, I was fascinated by this part of town and felt disappointed that there wasn’t a chic little bar or cafe where we could sit and spy on the late night revellers. Just minutes from the iconic splash of red light from the Moulin Rouge windmill, I noticed a dilapidated, decidedly feral looking sign for The Black Cat or ‘Cabaret Artistique’ as it was first called before changing its name to Le Chat Noir. It was the very first Parisian review bar, opening just before The Moulin Rouge in 1881 and all the up-and-coming cabaret artists tried out their new acts there before performing to a paying audience. It was visited by people from all walks of life: women of high society, tourists, bankers, doctors, journalists and was also home to all the literary and artistic giants of the time before they shifted their patronage to the glitzy new neighbour.

I noticed that by seven thirty the three deep queue for the eight pm show was already forming with Japanese and Chinese tourists first in line and a mix of other nationalities making up the rest of the hundred strong crowd. It was comforting to see such a large turn out on a wet Sunday night as it proved to me that The Moulin Rouge is not considered ‘old hat’ in Paris, but still ‘rakishly chic chapeau’. We felt like proper VIP’s when management ushered us past the lengthy queue for a preview of the venue before show time! Stage manager Thierry Outrilla brought us through a secret door to the extensive backstage area and immediately we were struck by a good strong farmyard smell! Wholly unexpected, we had just passed a ‘dressing room’ containing eight miniature ponies wearing diamond studded bridles! Now that’s show biz Moulin Rouge style!

In the main back stage area we got chatting to some performers getting ready for the show. Caroline Renno 22, is a solo performer who has developed the unique talent of swimming with pythons! She’s from Newcastle in the UK and in a good ‘up north’ accent she told me “In the second half of the show, a twenty foot water tank containing ten live pythons rises up from below the stage and I jump in and swim with them! They love the warm water so they’re very placid! Most of us do more than one performance, so along with my solo act I also perform the can can and dance with the Doriss Girls chorus line” Not all girls perform topless but Sophie Escoffier, 25, from Paris is one of the twenty who does.

I didn’t really know what to else to ask her except what her mother thought of her performing topless! She wasn’t a bit phased by the question. “It’s such a beautiful magical environment there is nothing improper about it. My parents have come to the show and loved it! Even my grandmother has come to the show and was very proud of me!” I asked if there were many French girls working the current Moulin Rouge show. “We have lots of foreign girls” Thierry told me. ‘Some shows could have up to fourteen different nationalities on stage on any given night. The top countries are Australian, French, English and Russian. Once, a few years ago, an Irish girl named Jean performed with the troupe” We chatted in a small room, surrounded by a mesmerising array of costumes.

Rows of identical headdresses made of vibrant, coloured ostrich feathers encrusted with diamante sat side by side. Feather trimmed armbands, fringed diamante headbands and glittery, shoestring style bodices (that looked exactly like bejewelled dental floss!) hung on rails. I think Thierry pre empted my next question and offered us some costumes to try some on! Epiphany narrowly avoided injury trying on a rather cumbersome red feathered headdress. “Everything is made exclusively for our performers – you won’t ever see anything like them outside of the club” Thierry said proudly.

I detected he had a particularly strong bond with the place and found out later that he was a dancer himself prior to his twenty one years of management. As we posed for photos by the stage entrance, the entire troupe of Dorriss Dancers swished past me in full feathered glory. They looked like a flock of exotic birds, and to use the vernacular, that’s exactly what they were! PR manager Fanny Rabasse joined us backstage to fill me in on some of the general requirements for any young gal, or guy, hoping to join the ranks. “The girls must have some ballet training” she told me,“along with great personalities, because this really shines through on stage! They also need to be a minimum of 5’ 8” with exceptional figures! We want our audience to be spellbound” she purred. I moved on to a more pressing question – fake or non? – Will the Moulin Rouge allow cosmetically enhanced girls to perform? There was certainly no evidence of silicon from what I could see! Au natural seems to be the way of The Moulin Rouge and Fanny confirmed it. “losing or gaining weight is controlled to + or - 2 kilos, cutting or dying hair is strictly monitored and absolutely no silicon for topless performers” she added, almost managing to take the fun out of it all!

The full meal and show costs E140 and as we watched from our little balcony style booth, I could see the floor staff whiz about like gnats getting the service out of the way before curtain call. The Moulin Rouge venue is breathtaking, simply because it has retained all its original characteristics and still looks like a dignified, venerable theatre. The red and white circus style ceiling, the vintage artefacts on the walls all look (and could be) authentic relics of past Moulin Rouge decades. The luxurious red velvet booths remind me of our very own Trocadero a Dublin! The current show on offer is ‘Feerie’ and is made up of three main sections ‘Moulin Rouge today, yesterday and Moulin Rouge Forever’ and naturally it features the best known legacy of the Moulin Rogue, the Can-Can. Ten of their best girls performed the famous dance and it really rallied the crowds. Fanny told me afterwards “It’s not like years ago when the chorus line was made up of linen maids and seamstresses who transformed themselves into Quadrille or can can dancers each night. Not every performer can do it because it’s one of the most difficult styles to perform and requires specific artistic and physical qualities.

New girls spend five weeks training and the rehearsals are very frequent.” The show’s twenty or so topless girls were exquisitely statuesque and uber chic with perfectly polished routines that went without hitch. Maybe that was the problem! Personally, I relate better to performers who are not quite so precise!

I crave audience connectivity, maybe even a ‘Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction’ not that it would have been noticed during the topless numbers! I suppose I love the business I’m in because true quality burlesque delivers all that sexiness and comedy in spades! By definition, burlesque is saucy, titillating cabaret, and although The Moulin Rouge is that technically, I found it somewhat lacking in sex appeal and felt that a dollop of humour wouldn’t have gone amiss. Nipples always stay under raps in burlesque (or more to the point, under tassels!) so I wondered, why do many people find burlesque performers sexier than these perfectly formed, size zero, topless Moulin Rouge dancers?

The Moulin Rouge performers are undeniably stunning and remarkably talented dancers, but I can see how their performances could be seen as a tad austere and habitual. Perhaps it’s the beginning of the end of the ‘less is more’ theory and the return of the ‘more is more’ train of thought! I’ve always hoped that the striptease element of burlesque shows would play a part in encouraging people to look at adult entertainment in a different way. With the exception of the kitsch trip to the Moulin Rouge of the eighties which was reminiscent of Eurovision hopefuls Sheeba singing topless, (Not a fantasy I wanted realised, thank you very much!) it is a remarkable show and I could see how it inspired so many in the worlds of artists, writers and film makers. Hollywood has immortalised The Moulin Rouge through the decades in classics like John Huston‘s 1953 "Moulin Rouge," 1960’s "Can-Can," with Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra and most recently, Baz Lurman’s 1990’s Moulin Rouge! Along with every other world famous glamour icon, I sensed The Moulin Rouge has to struggle continuously to fight off the natural aging process but indisputably, management have to be congratulated for their unappeasable desire to reinvent the show.

They’ve also succeeded in realising my dream: to bring an audience into another world, where the costumes are every girls fantasy and the girls may well be every guys! I have no reservations in heartily recommend a visit, to every vaudeville, cabaret and burlesque loving soul on the planet! Vive La France! Vive la Cabaret!

The trip was organised by : French Government Tourist Office 30 Upper Merrion Street, Dublin 2 Fax: + 353 1 662 9346 http://www.franceguide.com/ special thanks to Air France: http://www.airfrance.fr/ , http://www.blogger.com/www.mygenieinparis.com , www. moulin-rouge.com, reservation@moulinrouge.fr and http://www.hoteldaniel.com/

The Tassel Club’s next event APRIL 18th Radission Hotel, Golden Lane, 49 euro including booking fee www.tickets.ie more: http://www.thetasselclub.com/ or www.cirqueducabaret.com

Barcelona trip

working on shoots in Barcelona

Sara Colohan goes to Barcelona (Published in Tatler Magazine)

It took me a few days to realise exactly what it is about Barcelona that makes it such a special place - My conclusion is that it’s truly a ‘peoples city’ . Every plaza and every street has something breathtakingly beautiful about it but it’s not hidden away behind ‘No entry’ signs and red velvet ropes - it’s celebrated by everyday people doing everyday activities. Placa Reial is a great example of this practical open approach. An impressive cobbled square surrounded by coffee shops and wonderful restaurants including the popular Les Quince Nits. Every night huge queues of hungry patrons stretch across the square, waiting patiently for a chance to experience this restaurant’s great food and unbeatable value. I enjoyed my meal at Les Quince Nits, but I returned to the Placa for lunch the next day and ate at a neighbouring restaurant La Crema Canela and found it to be even better quality, although not as good value. So, if you don’t feel like a queue, you can just pop over to this other tasty option. Y ou can people watch from any of the restaurants and coffee bars around the square then take a stroll to Las Ramblas, not five minutes from Placa Reial and watch Barcelona’s most famous street heave and thrive nightly with street performers, hungry tourists and wonderful vibrant local florists. The energy of La Rambles is yet another example of Barcelona’s joy de vive.. Ask any local about Barcelona and they will spend an age telling you how beautiful the place is.

Unlike Paris, they don’t retain an ounce of snobbery about their love for their city. Gaudi, Barcelona’s most celebrated son epitomises this refreshing, fun and open approach with Place Guell, (3-5 Nou de las Ramblas) Parc Guell (Vallcarca) and La Pedrera or Casa Mila (92 Passeig de Gracia) all adding a unique sense of humour to the city’s architecture. All the above mentioned are a must, even to the most unlikely culture vulture!

I took valuable time out from my shopping holiday to visit each place and felt no remorse for doing so! I spent 10 days in Barcelona and managed to fill every day with exciting things to do. It took me a day or two to get my barings but soon realised that getting around was remarkably easy even for a girl with a defective sense of direction! I would advise anyone to take a few hours on the first day for a Barcelona bus tour. (Green, blue or red buses take you on different routes throughout the city approx Euro16) This is invaluable as you can hop on hop off as many times as you like, safe in the knowledge that there will be another bus along every 10 minutes. It really helped me get the lay of the land and I visited places I would not have otherwise ventured to like Placa Espanya and Museu Nacional D‘Art de Catalunya in Palau National, Parc de Montjuic. Montjuic is also the spot where you can catch the cable car across to the marina. There’s even a shopping bus - which will bring you to all the main shopping areas in the city! I didn’t know about that til the end of my stay but I still managed to make a healthy dent in my credit card none the less!! Shopping was my main focus on this trip and although I found lots of interesting shops throughout the city, I had the feeling Barcelona is no exception to the influx of High street stores bleeding the smaller boutiques dry. Zara, Pull & Bear and Mango being the main culprits. The impressive Placa de Catalunya is the heart of it all! Everything leads from this point and it is easily found due to the landmark El Corte Angles store on the corner.

I couldn’t get over the size of the underground Sephora store in the mall on the Balmes corner of Placa de Catalunya; it’s worth a visit. I found the best route for a days shopping was to take a trip down Las Ramblas from Pl de Catalunya and turn into C. de La Boqueria. Continue on walking towards the breathtaking Av. De La Cathedral in Barrie Gotic area where I spotted one of the best-located hotels in the city. Hotel Colon**** info@hotelcolon.es Ph 93 301 14 04. (Dbl rooms from 150 euro) From here, you can walk to Avinguda Del Portal de L Angel, which is a pedestrianised high street shopping area. (By the way, this leads you back to Placa de Catalunya) If you haven’t had enough at this stage, continue over to my favourite area of the city El Born. This area is a wonderful part of the old city, with narrow souk style streets, cool boutiques, great bars and bustling clubs.

If you fancy staying around here, I stayed for 2 nights in H10 Montcada**** on Vie Laietana montcada@h10.es Ph 93 268 85 70 (prices starting at 90 euro for a twin room)

You can easily walk to another great shopping street D’Avinyo from El Born. This street hosts more classic, funky boutiques the kind I crave when I travel to a new city. Make sure you don’t go on a Monday afternoon as most places in this area are closed. I made this mistake and had to go back the next day to scan all the beautiful shops I’d missed on my first visit. I found Avinguda Diagonal to be the main area for designer shops hosting Gucci, Calvin Klein (484 Diagonal) and Armani (490 Diagonal) but even more interesting are the designer stores that sell many different ranges under one roof. Check out Gonzalo Comella on 478 Diagonal with another store on No 6 Passeig de Gracia. Take time out to eat at the Cros Diagonal cafe (Diagonal 433 - Lourdes 111) you wont be disappointed. Passeig de Gracia is another street worth a look - I found a great little shopping mall called Bulevard Rosa (55 Passeig de Gracia)- It had lots of cute shoe, jewellery and clothes stores. Porta Ferrisa is a good street for a mix of high street stores and one offs. When asking for directions, just ask for the street with the H&M store!

Of course after a few days shopping I needed to unwind so I ventured to Barcelona’s most celebrated club CDLC (Carpe Diem 32 Passeig Maritim http://www.cdlcbarcelona.com/ ph 932240470) It has a great location, set on the beach you have the choice to dance or chill out by the crashing waves. Even with the impressive setting, I couldn’t relax in the place.. If girls in sunglasses dancing on tables and posh locals posing by the bar is your type of night out then you’ll love it! We left and took a stroll down the prominade and found a strip of bars and clubs which are free entry but pricey drinks (17 euro for 2 vodkas and sprite! Just like home!) if you do find yourself here, check out Kennedy s Style Club 14 c/moll de Marina but be warned, it’s a bit of a Temple Bar stag party area so don’t expect to last long !!

Alternatively you can try La Terrazza, Poble Espanyol http://www.laterrrazza.com/ for a more stylish fun type of night. Barcelona left me in no doubt that it deserves all the high praise and favourable comments that is bestowed upon it. I would travel back again at the drop of a Spanish sombrero and happily spend another 10 days shopping and sunbathing in this city that has an abundance of everything. Things to do: Shop in the morning, Go to the beach for the afternoon !! Use the Metro - its cheap, clean, safe and fast and remarkably easy to use. BTW. Taxis are considerably cheaper in Barcelona than home! Visit the Sagrada Familia Church, Calle Mallorca. I didn’t and I came home feeling like such a philistine for not even see the spires !! Visit Museu Dali, Figueres Trains to Figueres leave from Barcelona’s sants station almost every hour and the trip takes about 2 1/2 hours. But worth it if you love Dali and want to see his home town and amazing musemn. remembering every time to bring plenty of change for the street performers! Stroll on Las Rambla and visit La Boqueria fruit market, the stunning Gran Theatre de Liceiu and then just a little further on, on the same side of the street, there’s Gaudi’s Palace Guell which is a must for anyone who visits Barcelona. Go hear some jazz (it that’s your thing) in L’Hivernacle, Parc de la Ciutadella, Pg Picasso. This scenic park also houses the main Arc de Triomf in the city and a beautiful glass house style caf√© with great coffee. For info : www.bcn.es/parcsijardins Visit the Ritz Hotel Barcelona for afternoon tea!

Essential numbers: Turisme De Barcelona http://www.barcelonaturisme.com/ 0034 93 368 97 00 Places to stay: 5 star *****Husa Rey Juan Carlos, Ave Diagonal 661-671 *****Majestic, Pl de Gracia 68.

Tried and tested: 4 star **** Hotel Catolnia, Balmes 142-146 http://www.hoteles-catolonia.es/ ****Hotel Cristal Palace Diputacio 257,08007 Barcelona.ph 34934878778 3 star *** Hotel Century 154 Park Valencia, 08011 Barcelona ph 34934534400 Hostal LeVante 2 Bajada de S. Muigel, Ramblas Y Placa Saint Jaume. ph 34 93 317 95 65 This place is great! E33 euro a night and its two minutes from Las Rambla.