From the gilded age of the Third French Republic, via two world wars, four years of Nazi conquest, and recent pandemic interruption, the red windmill has endured. Since 1889, the Moulin Rouge has been a Parisian institution, and now, 134 years later, the high-kicking cabaret is ready to come down under – not for another dose of Baz Luhrmann, but to recruit the next generation of Can-Can dancers.
Why Australia and New Zealand? Because, as Moulin Rouge’s long serving Associate Artistic Director Janet Pharaoh attests, “It’s a paradise for recruiters.”
However, antipodean riches were likely not on the radar of Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller when they first opened their dream venue on the Boulevard de Clichy. Indeed, the Moulin Rouge soon established itself as a quintessentially French phenomenon, with its mix of bohemian and vanilla clientele. Early on, it was immortalised by the posters and paintings of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, gaining a reputation for sauciness and Belle Epoque grandeur. The so-called ‘first palace of women’ cemented its reputation, and secured its longevity, with its signature dance, the Can-Can.
Fast forward to a world that neither Oller nor Zidler could have imagined, and their famous red mill has become a global superstar. Yet, fame and tradition, far from giving the current operators carte blanche, comes with a raft of restrictions.
“First of all, it starts with the building,” Pharaoh reveals. “It’s an iconic building, so you can modernise, but there’s a lot of things you can’t touch.” Here, she is referring to ceiling heights, lighting grids and other structural issues. Every new addition, she reiterates, has to happen “within the constraints of an historic building.”
Pausing for breath, she adds, “That’s challenge number one…But for the show, you want to do something that’s modern, but you still want to respect the tradition. Now, it is hard, but strangely enough, if you stay with what the Moulin Rouge was about in the very beginning, a place of entertainment for all kinds of people, something that everybody can understand, it still works.”
Of MR’s twice nightly shows, Pharaoh says simply that they are a mix of “dancers and attractions.” The style is visual, with original music and spectacular numbers. “The show goes fast, there’s lot of variety, and it’s not necessarily ‘thought provoking’ or anything like that.” Moreover, there are no political or social messages.
Creating such a vibrant fusion of nostalgia, titillation and “escapist splendour” is no mean feat. The company boasts more than 80 dancers, with two 105-minute performances seven nights per week. For Moulin Rouge’s resident artists, the commitment is significant.
“Yes, you need to be on form and in good health,” Pharaoh confirms. “It’s not that it’s not tiring, but you’re not doing a two-and-a-half-hour ballet. And then, of course, you’ve got the Can-Can, which is very hard and energetic, and definitely a workout.”
That said, if successful, applicants will be offered full-time, permanent work in one of the world’s most elegant cities.
Therefore, come July, when Pharaoh arrives to audition Australian and New Zealand hopefuls, she will do so with a clear objective in mind, because there is a well-defined Moulin Rouge type. Tall. Solid classical training. Good all-rounders.
“We also want them to have a good figure,” Pharaoh notes. “Long legs; because that’s what works for the Can-Can. I don’t want too skinny or too big, just a nice figure. Then, I want lots of personality. Big smile. Energy. You know, we want people to be looking good on stage.”
This combination, Pharaoh admits, is rare, which is where local dancers come in. As she argues, Australia in particular is blessed with a plethora of quality dance schools. This, in turn, means an over-supply of well trained, stage-ready young dancers. Perfect for the Moulin Rouge’s strict requirements.
On the flipside, what does the old red windmill have to offer the net savvy, millennial dance school graduate? Aside from the regular wage, a dose of both fantasy and reality.
As Pharaoh describes it, the arc follows a well-worn path. “They’re going to rehearse six days a week for about three-and-a-half long weeks; and they’re going to start with the Can-Can very slowly, getting the small details right before they start kicking their legs. Then, they’re going to learn to do their own make-up, how to wear the hair and do their costumes. Then, slowly, they’ll have rehearsals where they’re integrated into the rest of troupe, all culminating in a very big rehearsal with the whole company. And, if all goes well, they’re on stage.”
After that, the rehearsal load lightens and a dose of growing up kicks in, especially for the younger recruits. There’s a new language to learn and accommodation to sort out. “They will have to organise their own warm-ups and classes,” Pharaoh explains. “We do have some gym facilities here they can use, and a rehearsal room, but mostly they’re on their own.”
Recalling her own time as a company dancer, she hastens to add, “But they will probably be socialising a lot, dare I say, and they will find their groove.”
After all, as Moulin Rouge’s chief creative observes, “They’re doing a job that they’ve been well trained for. They’re not coming totally unequipped, because they’ve been going to dance school since they were six years old.”
Dream? Reality? Probably both. If you can.
Auditions will take place in July in seven different Australian cities and in August in New Zealand for one day. For more information and to register to audition, visit www.moulinrouge.fr/en/auditions-2023.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.