“That is the Can-can. The idea of it is to dance as wildly, as noisily, as furiously as you can; expose yourself as much as possible if you are a woman; and kick as high as you can, no matter which sex you belong to. There is no word of exaggeration in this. Any of the staid, respectable, aged people who were there that night can testify to the truth of that statement.” Mark Twain – ‘The Innocents Abroad’
Between 1995 and 2000 I worked for a French company called Onyx UK and they used to take us away frequently for management meetings and we stayed in expensive hotels and hung out in bars and nice restaurants but what was best was that once a year we all assembled at Waterloo station and they put us on Eurostar train and took us through the tunnel to Paris for an annual conference.
One year when they were really showing off after buying out a competitor they took us to the Moulin Rouge for a special treat and we had champagne to drink and an extravagant stage show to watch. Although they would have negotiated a group discount on account of there being about eighty of us someone told me later that this demonstration of extravagant folly cost the company over £8,000 which was about the equivalent of the annual salary of one of the street cleaners that it employed. To his credit my friend Mike Jarvis refused to go because he didn’t consider it appropriate to accompany female colleagues to what he described as a strip-club but I did not share his lofty moral objections, declared it to be an up-market strip club and happily accepted my ticket for the meal and the show.
The Moulin Rouge opened on 6th October 1889 in a building at the foot of the Montmartre hill. Its creators were savvy businessmen who understood perfectly what Parisian society wanted and they created a nightclub to allow the very rich to go legitimately to the fashionable but seedy district of Montmartre where they could demonstrate egalitarian virtues and mix with workers, artists, prostitutes, the middle classes, businessmen, elegant women and foreigners visiting Paris.
By day the exterior of the Moulin Rouge is rather disappointing and the red windmill looks ridiculous and out of place on this Paris Boulevard but by night it is something completely different with glitzy lights, the whiff of gauloise on the evening air and a sense of anticipation as people turn up for the show. We arrived in two buses and were ushered through the lines of people waiting behind barriers who would gladly buy our tickets from us if we were prepared to sell and past ladies of dubious employment who would gladly accompany anyone who had a spare.
Walking along the corridor and through the doors into the interior was an awesome experience, like stepping back to Belle Époque turn of the century Paris into a room decorated in lavish red with rows of table lamps flickering like glow worms and columns adorned with Toulouse Lautrec posters and other appropriate memorabilia. My first open–mouthed impression was that this was a magnificent venue with authentic mural paintings and columns with the original posters of the big name stars that have appeared here, somewhere that epitomised the golden age of peace, extravagance and optimism that was perfectly captured here in a sort of time capsule. It isn’t especially big inside which gives it an intimate ambiance and this was emphasised when we squeezed into out allotted tables about half way back from the stage in between two rows of decorative gold fences that separated the eight hundred and fifty diners into convenient corrals for the waiters to serve tables.
The Galop from Jacques Offenbach’s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ is the tune most associated with the famous can-can dance which is a prominent feature of the entertainment and this played repeatedly in the background as the room began to fill and until the buzz of anticipation eventually drowned it out. Once everyone was in their seats the lights went down, the music exploded into the auditorium and the dancers in lavish costumes opened the two hour show with the iconic high kicking dance.
During the show there was an average three-course corporate entertainment meal and for our table of eight there was cheap champagne and a bottle of red and white wine which proved completely inadequate and was soon consumed. We considered buying more but it was prohibitively expensive because the management doesn’t want tables full of boozed-up louts acting inappropriately, leering and wolf whistling at the women on stage so we stayed dry for the second half of the show with the intention of making up for it later back at our hotel.
After the show the room emptied quickly as guests were efficiently whisked away to the street for waiting taxis and transportation. Our coaches were there and took us directly back to the hotel where Mike was sitting in the bar and over a drink or two remained indignantly uninterested in out tales of the evening’s entertainment, he didn’t want to know about the mime artist or the acrobat who balanced on chairs and he especially didn’t want to know about the half clothed dancers and on reflection, although I enjoyed it, I have to say that I agree with him.
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