The Moulin Rouge: 130 Years of Brilliance

Moulin Rouge can-can

OK, you probably have seen “Moulin Rouge!,” the 2001 jukebox musical that starred Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, and John Leguizamo. You may even be aware that the musical version of the film opened on Broadway on July 25.

What you may not know is that the film and the Broadway musical are based on a French music hall theatre, of the same name. And the famous can-can dance took root in the Moulin Rouge from its inception in 1889.

After 130 years, the Moulin Rouge is still going strong. And though many of its traditions are still in place, there have been some upgrades and modernizations.

Fashion Reverie spoke with the Moulin Rouge’s principal dancer Claudine van der Bergh Cook and Moulin Rouge press agent Fanny Rabasse about this Paris landmark, its history, and why after 130 years the Moulin Rouge is still attracting large audiences.

Claudine van der Bergh Cook

Fashion Reverie: Claudine van der Bergh Cook, could you discuss your dance background?

Claudine van der Bergh Cook: I am from Dublin, Ireland. My mother was a classical dance teacher, so I started taking dance lessons at a very young age. I moved to London when I was fifteen and studied full time at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance. I did my degree in ballet and contemporary dance and after graduation I auditioned for the Moulin Rouge.

FR: Was dancing for the Moulin Rouge something you always wanted to do or did the opportunity just happen?

Claudine van der Bergh Cook: It was a bit of both. I explored lots of option when it came to auditioning and perspective dance jobs. I thought because of my height—5`10.5—I would be well suited as a dancer at the Moulin Rouge. (The height requirement at the Moulin Rouge for female dancers is 5`7 for females and 6`3 for males.) Though my training and my aspiration was to be a ballet dancer, at 5`10.5 and over 6`2 on pointe, I was very tall, perhaps too tall, for a ballet dancer.

I danced for five years in the chorus at the Moulin Rouge and I also served as a replacement dancer for solos. Two years ago, I was promoted to a principal dancer of the Moulin Rouge and I am very happy in the role.

FR: What is your day like dancing with the Moulin Rouge?

Claudine van der Bergh Cook: The Moulin Rouge is open 365 days a year and we work six days a week. My day is kind of backward because we work at night. We have two shows, one at 9pm and the other at 11pm. The Moulin Rouge is true French music hall which ties into the history of the Moulin Rouge. We don’t just have dancing, we have acrobatic acts, jugglers, ventriloquists, and lots of other types of acts. All the acts give the audience a break between all the tableaus and set changes.

I go to bed around 4am because I have a lot of adrenaline after the show and it takes me a while to wind down. I get up around 12 noon the next day. I must keep my dance training in check with classes provided by the Moulin Rouge. Classes could be dance classes, yoga, or pilates which is great for stretching and core building which is so necessary for being able to dance with the headdresses with giant plumes.

I also must eat well throughout the day so that I can perform well two shows, six days a week. I eat about five small meals throughout the day.

FR: How did you train to be able to move and dance in the Moulin Rouge’s elaborate headdresses and costumes?

Claudine van der Bergh Cook: The classical ballet training did help with knowing how to pull up and support my body, particularly my neck. We also these back packs which are a part of the costumes that help us support the large plumage that extends out the back of the costumes.

We have a month of training to learn how to move and work with the big headdresses and feathered backpacks. There are 60 dancers in the show and there is a lot of traffic backstage, so we must learn how to get around each other and not slow the show down.

Fanny Rabasse: There are 23 dressers backstage to assist with the 1000 costumes in the show. Each dancer has 12 changes in the show and because Claudine is the lead dancer, she has her own dresser and dressing room.

FR: Do you do your own makeup and hair?

Claudine van der Bergh Cook: We take a special makeup class when we get hired at the Moulin Rouge. And after that we are responsible for our own makeup. I can do my makeup now in about 20 minutes.

We do our hair at the Moulin Rouge and our wigs are looked after by the Moulin Rouge staff. We are not allowed to change our hair color because then all the wigs would have to change. At the Moulin Rouge we only use real human hair and hairpieces because it is easier to style.

FR: The costumes at the Moulin Rouge must require a lot of maintenance. Could you please talk about what goes into their maintenance?

Claudine van der Bergh Cook: Our costumes are maintained by the Moulin Rouge staff. The staff also looks after our feathered headdresses and backpacks, as well as our shoes. Our shoes are made by the Maison de Claire Foy.

Fanny Rabasse: The Maison de Claire Foy was established in 1945 and the Moulin Rouge bought the footwear company in 2007. The Moulin Rouge also own the feather company that creates all our headdresses and backpacks. Maison de Claire Foy is the only company that makes the secret fabrication for our can-can boots. With our can-can boots you can perform 2,500 can-cans.

Claudine van der Bergh Cook: Our can-can boots are very important because the dancers jump high in the air and land in splits and the boots must support all these acrobatic movements. I no longer perform the can-can; but I did in the beginning of my career at the Moulin Rouge. I now open the can-can by portraying the character of La Galoue, who was a famous can-can dancer, and star of the Moulin Rouge. She is immortalized in the can-can painting by Toulouse Lautrec.

FR: Is there topless dancing at the Moulin Rouge?

Claudine van der Bergh Cook: We have beautiful costumes in the show, all beaded, using Swarovski crystals. In a very elegant way, there is a little exposure, but not in a way that children cannot come to the show. Children, as young as six years of age, can come to the Moulin Rouge. We are a family show.

Fanny Rabasse: When a dancer is first employed at the Moulin Rouge there is one month of training required. You are dancing the can-can and other chorus roles where there is no nudity or topless exposure. Can-can dancers are never topless in the show. Then after one or two years, you can dance with more topless exposure. It is totally up to the dancer and the ballet mistress. Our topless exposure is not covert, but very tasteful. And when we tour, there is no topless exposure at all.

FR: Has the Moulin Rouge ever been closed?

Fanny Rabasse: The only time the Moulin Rouge has been closed since it opened in 1889 was in 1985 for a special performance for Queen Elizabeth in London. The Moulin Rouge only closes for five weeks when we have a new show. The show that is currently running has been on stage for 19 years. We try to keep the show fresh and interesting, so some aspects of the current show have been updated.

FR: The Moulin Rouge is one of the oldest cabaret houses in Paris and famous for the can-can. How has the Moulin Rouge’s shows changed over the years?

Fanny Rabasse: We had a new artistic team arriving in the 1960s. Jacki Clerico took control of the Moulin Rouge in 1962. The new artistic team of Ruggero Angeletti and Doriss Haug have created 10 shows for the Moulin Rouge since the 1960s. The current show at the Moulin Rouge was created by that artistic team. The investment for the current show was $10 million dollars.

The Moulin Rouge has lots of traditions and one the things that has stayed the same since the time of Mistinguett is lots of people on stage and lots of beautiful costumes and sets, beautiful music, and of course the can-can. What has changed is the technical aspects to the show. The Moulin Rouge is going green. Our lights are now solar powered.

FR: Why is the Moulin Rouge, after 130 years, still appealing to tourists and consumers?

Fanny Rabasse: We give people what they want to see. The Moulin Rouge is famous around the world, and it is one of the places you must go and see when you come to Paris. The venue is amazing, the atmosphere is very warm. For an hour and forty-five minutes you forget everything and experience the excitement and the beauty of the Moulin Rouge. It is the pure tradition of French music hall and people want to see and experience that. 

FR: How much would an evening at the Moulin Rouge cost?

Fanny Rabasse: If you come only for the show, the cost is $150 euro which includes champagne. If you want dinner to accompany the show it costs more. There are many famous people that have performed at the Moulin Rouge from Mistinguett, Edith Piaf, Lena Horne to Josephine Baker, Frank Sinatra, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

La Galoue as characterized by Toulouse Latrec and in photos

FR: Let’s talk about the origins of the can-can.

Fanny Rabasse: Most people don’t know this, but the can-can was a dance of protest. Originally, the can-can was called a quadrille—which is a traditional French dance style. However, in 1862 Charles Moulton renamed the dance the can-can because the dancers make noise with their boots, clap, and scream. Can-can means to make noise.

In the 19th century the can-can was a way for women to mock the government, the army, and the church. We have a step in the can-can called the cathedrale. Two dancers hold hands and put their legs together so that it looks like the spire of a church. This step mocked the church. The heel stretch step was a way of mocking the army because it looked like a soldier carrying a gun.

The can-can was a dance of freedom women, symbolizing that they were free and didn’t need anyone.  La Galoue, who danced at the Moulin Rouge in 1889, didn’t need a man to support her because she was a dancer and made her own money. La Galoue was the first woman in Paris to have her own carriage. At the time of Mistinguett in 1910, we had the first topless dancers at the Moulin Rouge, while in the rest of France, women could not go topless at the beach until the 1970s.

Claudine van der Bergh Cook: Overtime, the can-can has become more acrobatic. Currently, our can-can lasts six minutes and dancers are doing lots of splits, kicks, walkovers, and somersaults. The timing of the can-can kicks must be very precise or you will accidentally kick another dancer.

Could you talk a little bit about the couture costumes?

Fanny Rabasse: All our costumes are made in our workshop and they are designed by Claude de la Bonucci. The show has been running for 19 years so sometimes we have to remake the costumes. When we do remake a costume, we remake the costumes exactly as it originally was made. The costumes are the expensive part of the show. Some of our costumes can cost up to $12,000 for each costume.

Images courtesy of Moulin Rouge/Fanny Rabasse

FR: What’s next for you?

Claudine van der Bergh Cook: I am constantly trying to grow as a performer. I am two years in my roles of ‘nostalgie,’ ‘red,’ and ‘Medusa.’ So, I am trying to grow more in these roles which are so different from each other.

—William S. Gooch

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