Together We Can-Can: Life as a Moulin Rouge Showgirl
I am thrilled to present this special feature about sensational showgirl Claudine Van Den Bergh, who I had the pleasure of interviewing backstage at the legendary Moulin Rouge, Paris. After passing through a hidden door and an intriguing labyrinth of dressing rooms and studios, I was shown into a room with a mannequinned row of eye-wateringly fabulous costumes. The view was only eclipsed when Claudine herself appeared. A statuesque, sparkling twenty-three year old who has advanced to principal replacement in just three years, Claudine struck me as a remarkably driven and level-headed professional with a bright future ahead of her. Enjoy a glimpse into her life, in her own words…
I trained my whole life in ballet. At fifteen I decided I wanted to pursue dance as a full-on career so I went to London where I studied at Rambert, School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance. I completed my degree there in ballet and contemporary and then I grew very tall and I decided that aesthetically I should audition for the Moulin Rouge, so that’s how I ended up here. It’s my first job. I am 23 and I have been here since I was 20.
The audition was extremely intense. It was 3.5 hours long and a serious test of stamina. We began with a classical variation, following by a lyrical variation. We had to do showgirl walks and then of course we had to do can-can technique.
The Can-Can is a very famous dance and a traditional dance at the Moulin Rouge. It is eight minutes of kicks, fast cartwheels and jump splits. It has its own technique, so when you start here you do four weeks intense can-can training. It’s a very exciting number and it takes a lot of energy!
On Moulin Time
We have two shows a night here at the Moulin Rouge: one show at 9pm and one at 11pm, every night of the year. We come in at 7.30 and do our makeup, stretch a bit and do our exercises. I chat to the girls and catch up about what we are doing today, then we go straight into the show.
“There are fourteen different nationalities here … it’s kind of a family atmosphere backstage because a lot of people are away from home.”
Our time clock is kind of backwards. Sometimes I might get up and go to a dance class and the gym, and then after that I have my breakfast. I do French classes so I try to do a bit of my homework. I have my dinner and come to work. I have to limber up before work so I come in and do a warm up at 7.30, do my makeup for about half an hour, then spend the other 45 minutes before 9pm doing stretching, warm up exercises, catching up with the girls, checking the plans and seeing what I am doing. I do replacement soloist as well, so I am very lucky. I try to maintain my fitness and keep improving all the time; it’s important for me.
The Moulin Family
There are fourteen different nationalities here and the two languages spoken are English and French. Everyone gets along very, very well actually; it’s kind of a family atmosphere backstage because a lot of people are away from home. Everyone understands and plans nice things to do together; we all get together to celebrate Christmas, etc. I’m from Ireland so it only takes an hour to visit home when I have holiday. And now my sister Isabelle is here too!
A Strong Foundation
The ballet training is vital; it’s really important. There are 70 dancers in total and everyone has to have a strong ballet technique. We have osteopaths based here at the Moulin Rouge; we are well looked after and injuries and anything like that is covered. We have to maintain our dance classes, gym work and Pilates; that’s all important to do in your own time.
It’s important to remember always that it’s a new audience every night. They are not seeing it like the people that saw it yesterday; they are new and looking at it with fresh eyes, so it’s important to give 100%
“Four million euros is spent on the costumes…”
I have twelve different costume changes per show. Big, lavish costumes with lots to them: lots of feathers, lots of beading, the best of fabrics, all the best leather – the best of everything. The diamonds are all Swarovski crystal. Four million euros is spent on the costumes alone.
We have 25 dressers here at the Moulin who help us get in and out of costumes. If anything needs to be revamped or fixed that’s all done for us; they are all seamstresses. Changes are very quick. It could be a minute, it depends on the dance – sometimes longer, sometimes less. I am not counting – I am just changing very quickly! You need to know your costumes.
My favourite costume is when I do principle. It’s all different colours with a massive shoulder of feathers that come out all the way down a beaded leg, It’s luminous and it has a little gold shoe. I love it!
The Weight of Glamour
We have some big backpacks, and when you come here you learn how to support those backpacks. It’s very important to keep a strong centre so that you won’t get injured. If you are doing what you are told, you know exactly how to hold the backpack. The pink finale backpacks are 3.5 kilos. If you learn how to dance with them properly then you build up so that you don’t feel it.
The Prestige (and staving off monotony!)
The Moulin Rouge is a huge, world famous show, so to be a part of something that big is massive for me. We have a different audience every night and you feed off the audience’s energy, and it’s important to remember always that it’s a new audience every night. They are not seeing it like the people that saw it yesterday; they are new and looking at it with fresh eyes. For many people it is a once in a lifetime visit, so it’s important to give 100%. I get to do a lot of different principle roles which keeps it very interesting for me. It’s good to swap around; it makes me stronger as a dancer. I am very happy!
Blusher is a must when you are on stage and under the lights here. If you wear nothing else, you have to have blusher! Matt eyeshadows for me are better than shimmer on stage, even though I like to wear shimmer myself. I don’t wear too dark a lip, more an orangey red for me personally, and red nails are always nice too. I use a good bit of Makeup Forever; they have a lot of colours and different girls pick different colour combinations.
I lead a normal life outside of work. It’s heavy work six nights a week, so I need that rest time to recuperate.
I enjoy relaxing. I like to meet up with friends for meals and enjoy Paris, I enjoy French food and I like to cook. I lead a normal life outside of work. It’s heavy work six nights a week, so I need that rest time to recuperate.
“I feel at home when I am on stage. When I am performing I don’t think about anything else.”
We do lifts, we do classical, jive and jazz, then we have a funky medley at the end with some very elegant, classy numbers in between. So there’s a bit of something for everyone. Then we have our variety acts in between which are huge: we have jugglers, ventriloquists, acrobats, and death-defying roller bladers!
We have been running 126 years and there is a massive history – you can see our Toulouse Lautrec paintings hanging in the front. You can feel the history when you watch the show, even the way the theatre is laid out. We have 1,800 people watching the show per night so it’s a very big sell and there’s a great atmosphere, especially when we do the French Can-Can!
Pride and Passion
I feel at home when I am on stage. When I am performing I don’t think about anything else. Dance runs in my family and was handed down to me. My family are very proud; they invested a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of effort into my career. I want the audience to relax, have a fabulous time, forget about whatever is going on outside, and go out of the show feeling happy and uplifted.
Love Claudine x
With thanks to Claudine Van Den Bergh, Fanny Rabasse, Erik Sorensen and the fabulous front of house staff at Moulin Rouge, Paris.