Doubtless every Paris traveller has heard of the Moulin Rouge – yet an alternative underground scene is rapidly emerging to challenge its dominion and take French cabaret back in time to its belle époque roots.
Unbeknown to most tourists, a burlesque club on a boat is waging war on politicians and launching a revolution that is as much about savage satire as sparkly sex appeal. This is cabaret done the local way.
The mesmerising Moulin Rouge
With her deep crimson lipstick, sparkling Swarovski earrings and bejewelled bikini peeking out from beneath a plush velvet dressing gown, Claudine Van Den Bergh is the epitome of a successful Paris showgirl. While a film crew hovers in the background behind her, and a stream of fellow performers race in and out of the dressing room in perilously high stiletto heels, she remains impeccably calm, elegant and poised.
From here, basement corridors lead to a secret backstage area where dozens of elaborately feathered head-dresses hang from the ceiling and millions of euros worth of crystal costumes line the walls. Yet for Claudine, like dozens of her colleagues, this is merely another working day at one of the most prestigious cabaret clubs in the world – the Moulin Rouge.
The show has impressive credentials: it boasts an €8 million euro production budget, much of which is spent on the costumes alone. Each diamond-encrusted masterpiece takes up to 280 hours to create, with the help of some of France's finest couturiers.
For most tourists, the likes of Moulin Rouge is where their cabaret experience begins and ends; spectators of a lavishly produced, big budget show that rivals the entertainment of Las Vegas. Yet to stop here would barely be scratching the surface of what the showgirl scene has to offer. Why not step away from the household names in search of an authentic Parisian experience?
Elsewhere in the city, a secret political revolution is unfolding that – thus far – only the locals know about. At the modestly-sized Burlesque Klub evening shows, the multi-million euro outfit collections are notably absent. But the performers here aren’t buying diamonds, they are them, and you can't put a price on their Swarovski-studded souls.
Burlesque off the beaten track
Barely a 15-minute drive from the iconic windmill of Moulin Rouge or a few minutes by foot from Saint Michel station is where the Burlesque Klub hosts many of its shows, the wonderful La Nouvelle Seine.
Here, where the river reflects the city's glittering night sky and the roofless Notre Dame Cathedral looms crestfallen in the background, local creative libertines gather on a moored boat. At first glance, it is just another vessel, indistinguishable from any other pleasure cruiser docked on the Seine – but to step within is to discover a world where tense political issues have been transformed into an anarchical visual art form.
Whereas Claudine confirms that the Moulin Rouge is ‘definitely not burlesque’, but more akin to ‘a West End musical’, the show here delivers undiluted burlesque-punk with a savagely satirical twist.
Anarchy on the Seine
Any guest expecting mere cabaret will be in for a shock as almost every act is delivered with a hard-hitting political message. In one, titled 'Pink Russian', drag artist Tom de Montmartre masquerades as a soldier to perform a partial strip-tease in front of a photograph of President Putin. As he removes his socks, showers of glitter cascade across the stage. The parody is ’to remind us about the situation of gay people in Russia, where they are persecuted.’
In another act, it's the USA that is served a slice of biting satire. ‘American woman,’ Lenny Kravitz's lyrics echo, ‘get away from me...’ Right on cue, performer Rosabelle Selavy launches herself onto the stage, wrestling with a giant inflatable hamburger that seems to weigh more than she does. The act is a mockery of the USA's obesity crisis and its ‘greed-ridden’ consumer culture. Every member of the troupe confirm they find Donald Trump decidedly ‘scary’ – and they are unafraid to use parody to say so.
At its helm is Valentina del Pearls, who stands against anti-Semitic hatred by declaring herself ‘President for peace, love, glamour and glitter,’ and cultural references here include everything from vintage Charlie Chaplin movies to modern day political issues such as the Paris protests and the plight of LGBT youth.
Challenging the hierarchy
Although the Moulin Rouge is polished and immaculately pretty, might it merely be offering a superficial layer of sparkle in comparison? Valentina certainly seems to think so, dubbing their show ‘old fashioned'.
‘If I was in one of those big productions,’ she muses, ’I would try to make them more alternative and rock’n’roll.’ Today, Valentina hopes to return burlesque to its traditional roots.
The word originates from the Italian burla, meaning ‘mockery’, and the art form has been closely associated with parody ever since. In France, it originated as a means for locals to drown their sorrows during 19th-century war. Each performance would hold a mirror up to the negative aspects of society and then, as a coping mechanism, laugh at the reflection. Shows could also be controversial – during the subversive belle époque era, the local chief of police threatened to close the Moulin Rouge altogether after performer Colette's first night onstage culminated in a lesbian scandal.
These days, however, genuine burlesque shows in Paris are few and far between – most options are either huge Vegas-style cabaret productions with total political neutrality or shock-value shows in salacious striptease joints. That's why the Burlesque Klub at La Nouvelle Seine holds such appeal for the traveller who thinks outside the box; it has re-introduced an absent art.
At €16.45 each, tickets are merely a fraction of the price of more famous cabarets. Where the Moulin Rouge strictly enforces a smart dress code, tuxedos and champagne budgets are not required here. Instead the atmosphere is informal and relaxed.
The burlesque theatre is in a separate room from the restaurant and the bar, as guests are encouraged to dine early and party late. Then, when the time comes to reluctantly rest your head, hotels that evoke the vintage cabaret vibe can be found within a few minutes drive, such as the Monte Cristo, with its vast displays of taxidermy.
Other cabaret shows worth visiting
If 80 classically trained dancers, ventriloquists and roller-skating acrobats sound appealing – not to mention underwater gyration in a tank full of snakes – then the Moulin Rouge is unlikely to disappoint. Similarly glitzy is the Lido with its signature act featuring dancers writhing on a giant chandelier.
Meanwhile, for cabaret as it might have been experienced in 1800s Montmartre (minus the high kicks, topless revues and crystallised costumes), try Au Lapin Agile. It lacks the excitement and frisson of the ‘good old days', attracting a mainly older crowd with a penchant for joining in with classic French songs. The entertainment is conducted solely in French.
In contrast, the language at the Crazy Horse is laser lights, where body scanners have been used to project patterns onto dancers' specific measurements. This show is about as far removed from traditional Parisian cabaret as it's possible to get, attracting celebrities like Beyoncé and Dita Von Teese to perform.
Of all the big names, it is perhaps the Paradis Latin that creeps closest to cabaret's burlesque roots, with playful insults flying while a unicyclist juggles in the background, champagne bottles narrowly missing his companion's head.
All of these are worthy contenders but to see a true political revolution unfold in modern day Paris, led by the voices of the future, there are surely few options more suitable than the Burlesque Klub at La Nouvelle Seine.