By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
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At the turn of the last century, Le Moulin Rouge was the most famous dance hall in Paris. Located in the seamy and sordid Montmartre artists' district, "The Red Mill" was a sprawling nightclub that offered a generous bar, a vast dance floor, and an outrageous garden where chained monkeys chattered in the trees, willing ladies enjoyed donkey rides, and exotic dancers performed alongside the orchestra à la modefrom within an enormous stucco elephant. The most enduring thrills, however, were tendered by Le Moulin Rouge's cabaret, where wild women with loose limbs and, some would say, looser morals performed le chahut, a bawdy, wildly athletic version of the quadrille that would become known as the cancan. Gloomy poets, political radicals, slumming aristocrats, eager footmen, well-worn prostitutes, and brilliant writers alike delighted in the lather of lace undergarments and creamy thighs. Frequent regular Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec immortalized Moulin Rouge dancers, such as redheaded "dynamite" Jane Avriland La Goulue (named "The Glutton" for her tendency to finish patrons' drinks) in bold lithographs. But while Lautrec's posters, currently on display at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, portray the style and slackening mores of the era, they do little to transmit the sweaty frenzy of Parisian nightlife in 1896. Such jubilance is better attained at the Period Events & Entertainments Re-Creation Society's Le Bal du Moulin Rouge.
PEERS, a nonprofit educational enterprise dedicated to remembering, researching, and re-creating the performing arts of the past, has become known for the 10 splendid galas it throws every year, including the Maharajah's Ball, the Victorian Christmas Ball, and most notably Le Bal des Vampyres, which has included an ongoing game of "Theatre of the Vampyres" since 1988. While all of the dances draw craftspeople and dilettantes interested in costuming and dancing, Le Bal du Moulin Rouge possesses a unique spirit.
"A lot of our events emphasize entertainment preferred by the upper and middle classes [of the Victorian and Edwardian eras]," explains PEERS Artistic and Dance Director Cathleen Myers, "simply for the delight of wearing the exquisite clothes. But this is a working-class affair. There are no ladies at the Moulin Rouge; there are women, but no ladies. Here, the incautious gentry mingle with revolutionaries and shopgirls. And Toulouse-Lautrec sits in the corner sketching and sipping absinthe. When the middle class finally decided Le Moulin Rouge was chic, it had been spoiled. At its height, Le Moulin Rouge was thought to be delightfully scandalous."
The frisky strains of a Parisian polka, performed by the flawless Baguette Quartette, float under the elegant archway of the Alameda Hotel Ballroom. The dance hall, lined with shallow porticos and windows, is a twirling eddy of feathers, water-marked satin, Edwardian lace, ruffles, and glass beads. While, for the most part, the crowd is better dressed than what I've seen in grainy photographs of the Moulin Rouge, there is no shortage of rogues in attendance -- hard laborers in woolen caps and ill-fitting jackets, petty thieves in striped shirts and berets, and common streetwalkers with short skirts and revealing bodices.
Arthur Pryin, an imposing gent with long white hair and a plangent tone to his voice, announces a waltz. People standing on the perimeter of the dance floor set down their liqueurs and pair up, while others, heated from their exertions with the polka, step into the full moon on the back patio. Baguette Quartette leader Odile Lavault, adorned by a head wrap inspired by the Orientalism in vogue at the time, squeezes her pale antique accordion, and the dance begins. This is no stately, decorous waltz for the stiff-necked and pinch-lipped; this is April in Paris. Couples hurl themselves across the floor, spinning wildly, laughing gaily, and occasionally overturning glasses with their high-flying skirts. Beads of sweat roll down the foreheads of rakish Messieurswhile Mesdamesclose their eyes and tilt their heads to the ceiling in rapturous turpitude. A tango is called, and the men narrow their eyes and switch partners, pressing the women very close to their chests.
"There are three types of people that come to these events," says George McQaury, who, along with his girlfriend, Madelyn Blair, has been attending PEERS dances for four years. "The hard-core costumers who are literally stitching themselves into their costumes in the car on the way here. (You can scoot them around the dance floor a little, if you're lucky, but mostly they just stand on the sidelines looking stiffly fashionable.) The Stanford/UC Berkeley types who reallyknow the dances but have one standard outfit. (There's this belly dancer -- she's a great dancer and we all love her, but she's always a belly dancer.) And people like us, who are not perfect dancers or perfect costumers, but still try to do something special for each dance without taking it too seriously."
And then there are those who really want to believe.
"While people are here," says "Jacques Dujardin," a sly-eyed man with a bright scarf tied around his neck who approaches me at the bar, "drinking and dancing and diluting their tedious minds with liquor and ladies' undergarments, there is an artistic revolution brewing in the gutters of Paris. The Hydropathes! The Incoherents! The So-Whats! The Theatre of the Absurd! They will change urbane morality and crush the bourgeoisie."