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 ├ęclairs 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 special thanks to Air France: , , www., and

The Tassel Club’s next event APRIL 18th Radission Hotel, Golden Lane, 49 euro including booking fee more: or