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The Moulin Rouge and the Can-can

How Paris let its hair down during the Belle Epoque

A name that conjures up a thousand images, and no doubt a thousand misrepresentations.

The Moulin Rouge cabaret provided a breath of fresh air at a time of strait-laced conformity and in an era of depression and hardship: Napoleon had been defeated in 1870 and the economic depression then lasted 30 years. People craved frivolity and some escape and they found it at the foot of Montmartre hill (then just outside the urban sprawl of Paris) where entertainment was laid on for the masses.

The Moulin Rouge was a place for all classes, and all walks of life. Along with the recession, it was a period when Paris was reinventing itself in terms of industrialisation, culture, civic structure and, not least, the social mores of the time. This was La Belle Epoque and liberated attitudes became more prevalent, allowing the Moulin Rouge to arrive just in time.

Dancers performing the cancan at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Credit - Stephane Franzese
Dancers performing the cancan at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Credit - Stephane Franzese

The aristocracy and the well-heeled bourgeoisie could mingle with the working labourer and, of course, enjoy less salubrious female company. They could enjoy the shows, often riotous performances and sit outside in the famous garden dominated by a lifesize elephant, a remnant of the Universal Exhibition of 1889, complete with integral belly dancer.

The Moulin Rouge survived several reincarnations, at various times being a cabaret, theatre, cinema and most iconically a music hall featuring the show stopping dancers leaping out of oversized artificial cakes to perform dance routines. Its reputation transcended all artistic genres and artists of all varieties found a stage they could call home.

Postcard from 1936
Postcard from 1936

The history

The Moulin Rouge opened in 1889, the vision of Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler. They wanted to create a larger than life venue offering diverse entertainment and a sense of exuberant joie de vivre for the public.

It quickly earned a reputation for notorious partying, colourful acts and always plenty of champagne. The heady mix ensured that members of the audience often ended up dancing in a riotous ensemble performance, and there was always a fine line between what the public loved and what the authorities viewed as lewd and unacceptable.

A terrible fire all but destroyed the building in 1915 before it rose from the ashes after the First World War. A new era began, with Jeanne Florentine Bourgeois emerging as the new figurehead. Hugely talented as an actress and dancer, she was highly paid and made a name for herself with risqué performances and shows that helped dispel the gloom and hardship of the post-war years.

She adopted the stage name of Mistinguett and collaborated with Jacques-Charles on some ground breaking revues. She took to the stage at the Moulin Rouge in 1909 for the first time and also was on the bill at the Folies Bergères where she had an affair with Maurice Chevalier. Some of her signature songs (‘Ça, c’est Paris!’, ‘Il m’a Vue Nue’ and ‘On m’Suit’, sung with Jean Gabin, all form part of the Moulin Rouge’s songbook heritage.

During the Second World War the Moulin rouge became a dance club and its reputation dimmed despite appearances by the new songstress of her times Edith Piaf. Piaf started on the cabaret circuit, becoming known as ‘La Môme’ (the kid) in the years before she recorded the seminal ‘La Vie en Rose’.

The Can-can

The emblematic dance routine evolved from a Quadrille of 1850 danced at the Mabille Ball by Celeste Mogador. A later version caused a storm in London in 1861 before it seemed to become synonymous with the excesses of the Moulin Rouge.

It was an energetic, high kicking dance, with a line of dancers (originally both male and female) who inevitably caused a stir. The bright and breezy, and thoroughly daring, combination of bare legs, garters, stockings, lace and frothy dresses was a perfect fit for the anything-goes debauchery of the Moulin Rouge.

Can-can dancers in Paris vineyard
Can-can dancers in Paris vineyard

Montmartre

The Moulin Rouge is one of Montmartre’s tourist landmarks, part of the circuit for any visitors to the city. They like to wander the cobbled streets of this villagey district, sample the tempting if slightly over-priced restaurants and look at the work of the street artists while soaking in the sweeping views of Paris. The close proximity to historically less than salubrious Place Pigalle only adds to the mystique.

This arrondissement was once a rural area, hence the windmill. The original ‘moulin’ was simply one of many in Montmartre but it quickly became the symbol of the world famous establishment.

The bohemian ambiance and the association with illustrious artists of their day have helped retain the faded artistic charm. As you stroll you can imagine Vincent Van Gogh, Renoir and others finding inspiration in this colourful neighbourhood. Other artists like Picasso, Seurat and Rouault also painted the Can-Can in their own idiosyncratic style.

Toulouse-Lautrec was also famously well connected to the Moulin Rouge, despite hailing from Albi in the south west. He met his muse ‘La Goulue’ (real name Louise Weber) in the cafés he frequented and he went on to create paintings in a style that epitomised the venue. A regular patron, he drew relentlessly and his advertising poster of Moulin Rouge became an iconic expression of the spirit of the age, with the Moulin Rouge as its centrepiece.

Streets of Montmartre
Streets of Montmartre

The modern era

In the 1950s the Moulin Rouge saw further change when Georges France and Vincent Auriol, former President of the French Republic, ushered in new ideas. They aimed to recreate the original soul, a club where patrons could enjoy themselves and let their hair down. They enlisted the help of future stars like Charles Trenet, Charles Aznavour and Bourvil and the Moulin Rouge was re-born.

The timeless appeal of having fun, along with a non-stop series of routines and performances, ensures the Moulin Rouge enjoys success to this day. No doubt, some come in search of a taste of the wilder, unfettered times when the lines between song and dance routines and audience participation were more blurred.

For more than 120 years, the Moulin Rouge has been a unique establishment with a unique history. Today it receives around 600,000 visitors annually so finding a ticket can be a challenge and a task to be planned well in advance.


Fun Facts

The Guinness Book of Records verified that Moulin Rouge dancers performed the high kick 29 times in the space of 30 seconds during the cabaret’s 125 year anniversary celebration.

Australian film director Baz Luhrmann produced a fictional romantic musical feature film in 2001 entitled Moulin Rouge! staring Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor and Jim Broadbent and music from Christina Aguilera, Missy Elliott and Pink. It has since been adapted into a stage show and is due to hit London's West End in 2020.

The Moulin Rouge was the first building in Paris to have electricity installed. At 10pm its red lights would be switched on in a surge of power and excitement.

The life-sized elephant housed other ‘entertainment’ including an opium den. Absinthe was also easily obtainable here.

Edith Piaf performed at the Moulin Rouge a few nights after the Liberation of Paris in 1944.


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Find out more and book tickets for Moulin Rouge on the official website.

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