Paris’s steepest quarter, the Montmartre hill district, is topped with the gorgeous white-domed Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur. The steps that tumble down from its base are a jolting contrast to the soothing white of the dome. Hundreds of visitors park themselves on these steps to see the evening sky engulf the city below, in gradual succession — a palette of pink, orange, mauve, purple and, finally, an inky blue. One has to navigate gingerly through troves of people (and their beer bottles) to find a place to sit. Once you do, the rewards supersede the effort.
Street musicians, acrobats, dancers, magicians take to the tarmac to entertain those seated at the naturally turned out amphitheatre. The “entertainment” tag to Montmartre never quite left the neighbourhood since the 19th century. This was once the seediest haunt of Paris colonised by dance clubs, guinguettes and cabarets — a place that inspired writers, composers and poets. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Auguste Renoir were among the prominent ones.
A second evening in Montmartre found us roaming the slim lanes, sewed in rich seams of antiquity and history. Crumbling homes of renowned artistes and authors bore little insignia of fame. Yet, there was an architectural grandeur in the cobbled streets and the bright yellow walls that flanked them. Cafés, charming souvenir shops and pubs apart, there was one beguiling address that needed more attention than the others. Moulin Rouge. The headlining windmill of the building was head-scratchingly small but expectations and intrigue were high. Despite the cost, we relented easily.
The can-can dance movement of the mid-19th century was the foundation of theatrical entertainment that made Paris the epicentre of cabarets all across Europe. The star in the flurry of acts was Moulin Rouge, a Charles Zidler-Joseph Oller production that left jaws dropped. It was here that the nocturnal denizens of Montmartre got a wild and seedy dose of desire, nowhere close to the sanitised versions that have been depicted in movies in the decades that followed. Spending 118 euros per head at a whim for a dinner-inclusive ticket turned out to be one of the best decisions of the trip, and, perhaps, of life.
Being ushered in with a glass of champagne in hand was our first brush with the indulgent French hospitality. To a backpack wielding, travel-weary pair, this was the perfect antidote to our budget experience on this trip. Inside the theatre, we stepped back in time. Poster-covered walls, low ceilings and cosy tables arranged along the tiered U-shaped seating were delightfully dated and unconventional. The dim-red cloth lamps on each table infused the ambience with an abiding shabbiness that one expected from the place. Perhaps, I was romanticising about the disreputable image way too much, as it was pointed out to me that Moulin Rouge went through several stages of overhauling after a fire in 1925, and then again in the 1950s. This was its most modern avatar.
We were seated right near the centre of the stage. Options of salmon, chicken and mushroom arrived quickly with a bottle of wine, as we had only 45 minutes to finish dinner, tune our senses to the electric atmosphere and turn the seats slightly to face the stage for the revue (show). Joined by an Australian couple on the same table, we marvelled at the pre-show singers and their astute manner of pandering to the busloads of crowds that the hall was brimming with.
“Chinese-heavy audience today? A mandarin song to appease the cheering crowds.” The Indians got the customary namaste and the Aussies a “Hey, mate”. With our bodies fed, senses awaited to groove, and witness the battlements, aka the infamous high kicks, of the energetic can-can dancers (a form that was initially performed by men and male students) — that, among other moves, brought the dance a bad rep.
Finally, it was time for Féerie, the show choreographed by Bill Goodson, performed by 100 artistes, of which the 60 Doriss Girls were the highlight.
Elaborate costumes and headgears designed by Corrado Collabucci were hard to take the eyes off as artistes swept in and out of the stage, with surprises that let out a collective sigh of disbelief, every few minutes. A trapeze, a water-and-snake-filled glass tank that emerged from below the stage, and mind-boggling juggling skills were only some of the scenes that amplified the mood. Nudity, furs, grand head gears, cameos by animals, wild, silly and simply incredible acts left the audience in awe, and clapping long after the show ended. There was not a moment’s rest for the eyes or the senses. The music, dances, acts and the snuggled-up tables added to an exhilarating evening.
As the year 2019 marks the 130th year of the world’s most famous cabaret in the world, it’s only imperative that a curious traveller makes his or her way to the same exotic theatre to see what made ripples in entertainment at the turn of the 19th century. Some may wave it off as touristy, but if you walk out wide-eyed after two hours of sheer entertainment, a slice of the risqué past well-preserved, and excellent food, it’s worth it. Dance along, if you may.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Shall We Can-can? Moulin Rouge, the cabaret house turned 130 this year’
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