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 Messieurs while Mesdames close 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 really know 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."
"No, no, no," argues Joshua Astor, dressed in the signature black hat, red scarf, and black cape of Montmartre song-stylist Aristide Bruant. "Merde! You are many years too soon. You must wait until the Chat Noir and the Quat'z'Arts become popular. Rodolphe Salis has not even yet begun his obscene puppet plays about flatulence. That is when art becomes something again."
In the ballroom, a woman playing La Goulue, whose identifying black velvet choker became a national fad during her lifetime, introduces the Peerless Ballet Troop. The delightful, meticulously choreographed cancan routine is rife with sexual innuendo, unreasonable leg extensions, and frilly underpants (nothing as risqué as the real undergarments of the time, assures Cathleen Myers) that get the crowd howling loud enough to overcome the dancers' squeals.
"Vayne Borjingsky," a great bear of a man in a furry Russian hat and coat, observes the performance with an unyielding eye and a delicate woman on his arm. A small badge on his lapel bears the picture of Paul Hampton, a longtime friend and fellow PEERS pa-tron who was killed by a drunk driver in February.
"His girlfriend was without an escort," says Borjingsky, "so I have come to watch over her. She is in mourning, but this is a wonderful dance."
Cathleen Myers invites the crowd to learn the Moulin Rouge Lancers Quadrille. Two large circles are formed with ladies on the left (considered indecent in England).
"Ladies, you are the boss here," counsels Myers. "Take your man and promenade for a 16 count." The crowd spins and twirls, switching couples four times before the dance ends and another tango is called.
Ethan Hay slinks by with a slapdash ascot stuffed into the neck of his rumpled jacket and a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his perpetually pursed lips. His dance partner, Kathie Kertesz, seems captivated.
"This is easily one of the greatest PEERS dances," says Hay down his nose, with sinisterly squinting eyes. "I pulled this character right out of the exhibit at the Legion of Honor. Fantastic."
At the Legion of Honor, anchored by a pair of headphones and a push-button tour guide, I wander through a maze of posters Toulouse-Lautrec designed for "underground" venues in Montmartre. Over the swirling sound of laughter, clinking glasses, and songs sung by Yvette Guilbert, I learn that the Hydropathes were a group of artists who frequented Le Moulin Rouge and viewed eccentricity as an art form. So, too, did the Incoherents (though they were more partial to Chat Noir and corporeal output such as Alphonse Allais' blank musical composition "Funeral March for a Deaf Man"). I watch museum patrons poring over sketches -- adolescent cartoons of giant butts farting on men's heads, or public figures dressed in women's clothes -- that once hung on Le Mur, a large wall considered a collaborative "collage" by regular drinkers at Quat'z'Arts, and wonder why my local bars and cafes don't have manifestoes. I learn that Montmartre residents considered it artistic subversion when someone from a middle-class neighborhood chose to hang one of Lautrec's advertisements in his drawing room; I wonder what level of sedition a museum exhibition might represent. I learn that La Goulue retired from her dance-hall days a wealthy and famous woman of 25, then died a penniless alcoholic selling cigarettes in the street; I learn that Theatre of the Absurd creator Alfred Jarry also died a ravaged alcoholic in his early 30s, as did Toulouse-Lautrec, whose excesses exacerbated his already ill health.
"They didn't live long, but they were funny, and they knew how to party," says Jarrod Burgleman, whom I recognize as a jaunty two-stepper from Le Bal du Moulin Rouge.
"You should come down to my neighborhood sometime," I say, hanging up my museum tour guide and self-consciously adjusting my black velvet choker.