The Moulin Rouge, the French cabaret famous for its high-kicking cancan dancers and flesh-exposing ostrich feather costumes, marks 130 years since it first opened its doors to audiences.
For two performances every evening, 60 performers from 14 different countries twirl, kick and dance their way through the “Feerie” show, the review that is now the mainstay of the Moulin Rouge’s repertoire.
But backstage – unseen by the 600,000 audience members who watch the show each year and quaff their way through nearly a quarter of a million bottles of champagne – is a different kind of choreography; the sophisticated machinery of costume changes and scenery-pulling needed to make the show happen.
Each show requires 1,000 outfits, all crafted in the workshops that have been supplying the Moulin Rouge for decades. Each dancer has to make between 10 and 15 costume changes per show, with about 90 seconds to complete each one before they have to be back out on stage.
Every time a number finishes out on stage, the same scenario is repeated. The troupe of dancers rushes backstage. There, the multicolored costumes, many encrusted in rhinestones, have been laid out in order by an army of assistants. Rows of pink feather boas hang from rails.
Pink and black thigh-high leather boots, with sequin decoration, hang from racks. Elaborate constructions which go over the dancer’s shoulders and create the illusion they have sparkling butterfly wings and ostrich feathers sprouting from their backs, sit in rows on tables.
Each dancer heads to the costume they require. While they change, technicians shift the scenery in time for the next number.
The dancers are changed in an instant. Then, the troupe rush back out onstage into the glare of the footlights. Without a pause, the costume assistants backstage put away the outfits that the dancers removed, then lay out a new set of outfits so they are ready for the next costume change and the next number.
The performances at the Moulin Rouge still hold true to the traditions established at the cabaret’s founding on 6 October, 1889, when women who made a living washing linen by day transformed themselves into dancers at night.