“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 (now Veolia Environmental Services) 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 best of all was that once a year we all met up and 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 watched an extravagant stage show. 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 of this and also because he considered it inappropriate to accompany female work colleagues to what he described as a strip-club. I did not share his lofty moral objections, satisfied myself that it was an up-market strip club, was not going to pass up the opportunity and happily sold my soul and accepted a 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 owners were businessmen who understood perfectly what Parisian society wanted at that time and they created a nightclub on the edge of sleezyness 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 foreign tourists visiting Paris.
By day the exterior of the Moulin Rouge is rather disappointing and the red windmill looks quite out of place and absurd 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 mounting 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 willingly 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 (French for Beautiful Era) turn of the century Paris into a room predominantly decorated in lavish scarlet 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 walls with the original posters of the big name stars that have appeared here, somewhere that epitomised the European golden age of peace, extravagance and optimism all 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 to make it easier 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 and which is a prominent feature of the entertainment and as the room began to fill this played repeatedly in the background 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 and leering and wolf whistling at the girls 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 stubbornly uninterested in our 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 dressed dancers, and on reflection, although I confess that I enjoyed it, retrospectively I have to say that I agree with him – it was a scandalous waste of money.