What Does It Take to be a Doriss Girl? - two interviews at the Moulin Rouge
By Mila Gorokhovich
March 20, 2003
(Also see Mila's review of a Moulin Rouge performance.)
On the evening of the show that I attended, I was fortunate enough to have a few moments with Fanny Rabasse, the press manager and Nicole, an American Doriss girl of the Moulin Rouge. Both ladies opened my eyes to the truth behind Moulin Rouge, which appears to be not far from what we as the audience see on stage - the beauty and magnificence of it all.
Mila Gorokhovich: How can you relate Moulin Rouge to the show girls in Las Vegas…can you compare the two?
Franny Rabase: Different from the show in Las Vegas. Tradition of musical with many, many dancers on stage with feathers, boas, girls of the show. Las Vegas - more technical, not as musical. You can't compare Moulin Rouge to Cirque de Soleil. Cabaret in Paris and big big shows in Las Vegas.
MG: Does Moulin Rouge give tours?
FR: We do, but we don't stay too long in each city. We do charity galas. We traveled a lot for the premiere of Moulin Rouge, the movie - In Cannes, in London - for Prince Charles, Vienna, gala in Canada with Air France, Hong Kong in May, we are going to Australia in August. But we are there for a very short time and only for private parties, not for the public. Small shows. We think that the Moulin Rouge is in Paris and what you will see is completely different because we don't have the atmosphere of Moulin Rouge, we don't have the decors, we can't bring the entire company so it will be different. What we do on tour is a touch of Moulin Rouge. The whole show is like 20 minutes.
MG: So you go all the way for only 20 minutes?
MG: How do you think the image of the Moulin Rouge has changed since a century ago when it started?
FR: We have had different eras. At the beginning of the Moulin Rouge, it was a very small show, with only a few dancers. During the 20s, Ms Daget brought the big big musical things with many dancers on stage and lights the new atmosphere. But I think despite the new changes, we want to keep the tradition. The tradition of the Moulin Rouge.
MG: And what is that?
FR: Big shows with many people on stage, with feathers and French tradition of French songs.
MG: But it used to be very small, right? A small cabaret when it first began? It only had a few dancers.
FR: The theatre wasn't small, but there were maybe 20 dancers altogether and there wasn't a stage. The dancers were in the middle of the public - there was no stage. The stage arrived in 1910. It was held in the same place, but not the same building because there was a fire in 1917. It was just an accident. They rebuilt it but completely different. As a theatre. No longer as a ballroom with dancers in the middle of the public.
MG: Do the dancers still wear long white pants under the skirts?
FR: No, not any more. They don't wear pants. They have skirts and panties, but no pants. But at the beginning of the cancan in 1889, at the Moulin Rouge, they used to wear, of course, pants. But, imagine that they just show their bottom - always with pants - but it was a scandal. Because at the time, the women wouldn't show their legs and with Moulin Rouge, the dancers showed their bottoms and it was like, WOW!
MG: Do you think that the movie, Moulin Rouge, portrays the real Moulin Rouge well?
FR: I think it portrays the building well, but nothing of the history. It is a movie, a nice love story, but the place resembles it very much.
MG: I think the movie is so exaggerated - Lurhman really exaggerated the movie to show the glamour of the Moulin Rouge, the boisterous aura of it. Do you think that comes across in the real thing?
FR: Yes, it's glamorous. But I don't think the Moulin Rouge ran that way. It wasn't like ' Go and sleep with that man because he will pay the bill.' I don't think it was like that and in the movie, it was like that.
MG: Thanks so much.
Interview with Nicole
Mila and Nicole
MG: You're from Miami - Why did you decide to come to Paris? Why didn't you decide to come to NY?
Nicole: I was just interested in living in Europe. It's been a while since I've been living here which is about 13,14 years. I went to school in DC and I was up in NY a lot, but I think I was very intimidated by the city. And Europe seemed like…you know…go live the dream and go see different countries and all of that.
MG: Is your family here as well?
N: My family is still Miami, but I've been working back and forth - either working here, or different cabarets.
MG: So you work at other cabarets other than Moulin Rouge?
N: I started in the Moulin in '94 and before that, I worked in Japan, in Miami, in Monaco. I came here and then I also worked in Mallorca.
MG: Did you graduate from HS and go right away?
N: Yes, I graduated from HS and started traveling to Europe and then I worked 2 years outside of college and then decided to move here.
MG: What kind of dance background do you have?
N: A little bit of everything, but nothing conservatory…nothing formal…nothing like that I used to take dance classes when I was small… I always danced and I went to whatever workshops were available and all of that.
MG: So what was helpful to get into Moulin Rouge? For the audition?
N: I was lucky enough to meet someone in Monaco who worked here and gave me Ms. Doriss' number. Ms. Doriss is the former ballet mistress and um, I had an audition on my own and so I think it was more relaxed. It wasn't like the tensed setting, per se.
MG: Is it usually a group audition?
N: It depends. Sometimes it's a group thing, sometimes people are referred by other people, so I think with the reference, I was much more confident.
MG: Interesting. So what kind of dancing do you like to do? What's your favorite?
N: Everything. There's still a lot I haven't learned! I really want to learn tango at the moment - I don't know why! I Reeeaaally want to learn how to tango!
MG: there are many ballroom studios around here and tango is a ballroom sport, so you could probably look there. Have you tried? Do you go to studios like that?
N: No. I mean, I'm also writing songs and making music and all of that so I do have activities outside of the Moulin. I'm doing electronic jazz music at the moment.
MG: Are you performing anywhere?
N: Not yet. I'm getting a band together…it's hard to balance the two, but um… yeah, it's coming along. So when I have some free time, I'll learn to tango!
MG: What does it take to be accepted into the Moulin Rouge? What was the audition process like?
N: For me, it was just… Ms. Doriss asked me to do cartwheels, and I did a cartwheel without my hands and at the time they needed a cancan soloist and so it just worked like that. And I was tall and had long legs and because I danced as well, she said they needed a replacement for the summer. So it was perfect timing
MG: So you just did cartwheels?
N: Yeah, well I mean…no, must have done something like pas de bourees or chasses and channes…I mean, it was a while back now. But I just remember that they were really looking for a cancan soloist and it's something that's very hard to find because you don't always have a lot of acrobats hanging around waiting for work.
MG: Really? I don't know about gymnasts but I know that as a dancer, you're always looking for work…it's so hard to find a job.
N: yeah, well gymnasts, normally, when they're competitive gymnasts, they stop after a certain age. They don't really continue and have a profession as gymnasts and I was just lucky enough to have learned gymnastics while dancing and I always did it.
MG: So how old were you when you started dancing?
N: I started when I was 3..But I did all sorts of different kinds of dancing - Hawaiian and baton twirling and acrobatics, ballet, tap, jazz, everything.
MG: Did someone influence you to do all this?
N: My mother. My mother wanted the artist and my father wanted the athlete. So at one time it was kind of the tennis lessons on Monday and the ballet and whatever from Tuesday to Friday and then on Saturday, it was something else. But I was a really active kid so they had to keep me busy.
MG: Like other types of dancing, especially ballet, a part of Moulin Rouge is very aesthetic. As with ballet - you wear pointe shoes and even though it can hurt, you still do it because it looks beautiful and with Moulin, everything looks beautiful. All the tall dancers with long long legs , flexible and beautiful and gorgeous faces and that, being a large part of the Moulin, is also quite aesthetic and a bit superficial. Of course, it's a show for the audience so it will be, but with regards to that, there's also a sort of a stereotype of Moulin Rouge dancer - the traditional Moulin Rouge dancer and Moulin Rouge continues retain this tradition. So I'm curious how you felt about that?
N: At the time, it was before the film and a lot of the dancers that I've known were from cabarets and you do change contracts every months and whatever, but basically the aesthetic in cabaret is the same. You are pulled up, with the long legs with the heels on. So cabaret dancing is like that. And this person in Monaco was living there and I wanted to move to Paris so the contact was made that way. But it wasn't like…it's funny because before I went to Monaco, it was - I was living here and I walked by the Moulin Rouge and I'd go " Oh - I could never go in there, those girls must be so good, all the training they must have had…. and it's true, we are, you know, a quite good level of dancing and very professional dancers, but at the time, I didn't realize you know, it's also a place where they do train you into that image. You have 2-4 weeks of rehearsals depending on which line you do and if you learn a new place, you also have rehearsals for that and so you're kind of trained into the image so that in the show, all is homogenous. Cuz we've had some girls now come in who do mostly hip hop and funk and everything, and there's a little bit of that in the dance, but it's not that type of show.
MG: Is everybody the same height? Like in the Rockettes?
N: no. But illusion - the way that you line up, make the lines. It gives the illusion that we're all the same height.
MG: Oh ok. But you weren't intimidated by the fact that they wanted you to be thin and tall and long legged.
N: No, cuz at the time I was. There is a height and weight requirement and usually you have to maintain that because the direction hires you, they hire the image that you are that day and you have to keep that. For example, if I got hired looking like this, then I should stay like this for the entire duration that I am here. Not have excessive weight gain, not excessive weight loss either…not change my hair color…
MG: Do they weigh you?
N: You do get weighed. If they see you're gaining weight, you do.
MG: How was your first performance here? Were you nervous?
N: Great…Great. My rehearsals were just hellish so I was so happy to finally get on stage. I mean it wasn't awful, but we had this cancan master…Italian cancan master - Moulin Rouge. Ricero. I adore him now but in my first week, I remember I had to do a round off and two back hand springs - that's the opening for my solo- he made me repeat that twenty times in a row - over and over and over again. I guess I needed it…in the end; it was so much easier after that
MG: I guess it's like any art form - you have to do it so many times - it's really grueling but as you said, it finally gets easier. So you weren't nervous - you just went on. After wards, did you feel like "oh my god, I'm actually here!"
N: I felt that watching the show for the first time. When I first watched the show the night I signed my first contract (snaps her fingers), I was just like "Oh my god" (gasps). But then once I got to the rehearsal process and this and that, it became another stage and another job and you have to do your job and that's just how it goes. I've been at the Moulin for 9 years.
MG: What are some of the best moments of working here? What do you like?
N: It's great to be paid to wear feathers and rhinestones and tip around and yeah…it's a great job and you get holiday. Working in France, you get about 5 weeks holiday so that's nice because France is pretty central in Europe and you can see a lot and get all different kinds of people from different places.
MG: Some of the worst?
N: I really don't have any except for those 25 handsprings…that was pretty bad.
MG: Is there any sense of competition, awkwardness, tensions?
N: It's one of those questions that after you've worked in one place for a long time of working, it's not so relevant to you. You know? I guess maybe for the younger girls coming in, it must be that way because they come in…about 12 at a time for rehearsals…or 9 girls coming in at the same time, it must be pretty intimidating.
MG: What's the typical length of a dancer's time here?
N: I'm defying all predictions at the moment so…I don't know. But actually, there's one dancer who actually did the cancan much longer than I did so I really respect her. I don't know if there's an average.
MG: what's the average age? How young are they?
N: I'd say from middle age must be about 24 now, but a lot of my corps mates are quite young.
MG: Is it really as glamorous as it appears? I mean, from an outsider's point of view, it seems like an amazing profession…you give the impression that it is. But when you go up on that stage, do you still feel the glamour of it all? The lights and everything!
N: For me, personally, I have to create that because we're doing the same show every night - twice a night and if you're not really into doing the same thing, it can be a drag. So you have to create this kind of ooo on stage and create this kind of persona… I don't know, that helps me…so then its kind of new each time, it's a creation each time.
Finally, Nicole had to run away as she was called to take place onstage. The positive vibe of this bright and talented dancer reflected the flamboyance of the Moulin Rouge corps as a whole. I'm sure that like dancers in other companies, the life of a Moulin Rouge dancer requires immense dedication and devotion to her art - in this case, that of cabaret.