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Cabaret, champagne and can-can
The famous dinner show is nowhere close to the way it is portrayed in Baz Luhrman's film.
Natalie Sims and Nora Mogalle break into a smile when asked if they have day jobs apart from performing at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. "We're professional dancers, " says Sims, a Briton. "People always ask us: what's your real job? We're dancers and that is our real job. It's our work. "
Sims and Mogalle are part of a Moulin Rouge troupe that visited India last week for the World of Accor, an event organised by the French hospitality group in cities across the world to promote their brand. Last week, the dancers performed in Mumbai and Gurgaon where they were cheered on by businessmen and corporate executives invited for the show.
Both Sims and Mogalle are Rouge veterans. While Sims has been part of the show for six years, Mogalle has been there for eight. They live in Paris in rented accommodations and perform every evening at the famous cabaret. The Rouge has two shows every day, at 9 pm and 11 pm.
They say that the real Moulin Rouge is nothing like the way it's been depicted in the eponymous 2001 film directed by Baz Luhrman. Set in the early 1900s, the romantic musical has Nicole Kidman playing a courtesan at Moulin Rouge. "There's no room for the guests to be rowdy there, " says Sims. "It's a dinner show, very dissimilar to the film in a way. "
It had been Sims' childhood ambition to perform at the Moulin Rouge. She recalls a portrait of la Goulue, the legendary 19th-century French can-can dancer, on the wall of her mother's home. A star attraction at the Rouge, la Goulue, whose real name was Louise Weber, created a scandal in those days by becoming the first woman to show her bottom to the audience. "I used to ask: Who is she? What is the Moulin Rouge?" says Sims. "And when I realised what it was, I wanted to work there. So my focus for the dance training was to get to the Moulin Rouge. "
The Rouge holds auditions every year in many of the world's major cities. "I went for the audition in London, and there were about a hundred girls, " recalls Sims. "We were given a routine which we had to learn on the spot and perform five minutes later. It was of a certain style, and to get the attitude, the personality across there and then was not easy. "
Doing the can-can was even more difficult. "It involves fast kicks, cartwheels and turns. And when in the audition you have to do this and you're not used to it, it's the toughest thing you've ever done. I could not walk for two weeks after the audition. But in the end it was worth it because I got the phone call. "
For Mogalle, a German, it was a different story. Trained in classical and jazz ballet, performing at the Moulin had not occurred to her until a girl who had left the troupe joined her ballet company. "She told me about Paris and her life there which seemed interesting, " she says. "That's when I went to Paris and auditioned for the troupe."
The dancers go through a month of intense training before being put on stage. "I learnt tap and jazz which is very different to showgirl and can-can so the style was difficult to pick up in just five weeks, " says Sims. "And then, of course, you have to learn the choreography, learn to use the costumes. And once you're on stage after the training then you're learning again because while you know the choreography, backstage, there are people running about in all directions so you have to know exactly what is happening when. "
In Paris, the choreography includes topless acts but the dancers are well protected and visitors are never allowed to venture near them. In fact, there are no drunk men heckling the girls or even wooing them as one might imagine. Mogalle's most amusing memory of the Rouge is rather staid: that of seeing people asleep on their champagne glasses after a performance. "But in the end you understand because they may have come over from, say, China for a day and they've been travelling the whole city and at night they sit down to watch the show and then fall asleep," she says.
Built in 1889, the Moulin Rouge (The Red Windmill) is the world's most famous cabaret and has grown to become a prime tourist attraction. Many books and films have been based on it. Its dancers come from all over the world, including Australia, England, France, Russia, Scandinavia, Germany, Argentina and the Netherlands.
Its productions are lavish - it costs 10 million euros to come up with a new choreography. The costumes themselves are worth 4 million euros. "It's why we run our productions for such a long time, " says Fanny Robasse, the Moulin's publicist. "The current production has been running for the last 13 years."
A Moulin Rouge dancer must be tall - at least 5'8" for girls and 6'3" for boys. The troupe comprises 40 girls, 20 boys and 10 acrobats and jugglers.
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