BETH HALE asks why so many of the Moulin Rouge’s high-kicking chorus are proud northerners

The ooh-la-lasses of the Moulin Rouge: Quintessentially French, it’s the Parisian club that made the can-can famous. So, asks BETH HALE, why are so many of its high-kicking chorus proud northerners?

  • Quintessentially French, the Moulin Rouge club in Paris made high-kicking dance the can-can world famous
  • But surprisingly, many of its chorus are from the UK – including dancers from Yorkshire, Wales and Leeds
  • There are 26 British dancers among 80-strong company, a foreign contingent matched only by Australians
  • Principal dancer and artistic director are both Brits, with English often spoken instead of French backstage

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Layers of ruffled petticoats flash in a whirl of red, white and blue; legs rocket skywards, while dancers twist, cartwheel and kick, kick, kick!

As the familiar tones of Offenbach’s music take flight so, too, do the performers, shrieking as they leap into the air, all with deceptively limber, long-legged ease.

The Eiffel Tower may be Paris’s best-known landmark, but ooh la la, is anything more quintessentially French than the can-can, performed by the dancers of the Moulin Rouge?

Yet stroll backstage at this Parisian institution and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d landed somewhere between the Dales and the Pennines.

‘It’s the Yorkshire mafia,’ jokes Fanny Rabasse, the (French) press relations manager standing in the engine room of the show, the wardrobe area where costumes costing millions (a single can-can dress costs more than £4,000) hang, and backstage chatter segues seamlessly from English to French, and back again.

Layers of ruffled petticoats flash in a whirl of red, white and blue; legs rocket skywards, while dancers twist, cartwheel and kick, kick, kick!

Layers of ruffled petticoats flash in a whirl of red, white and blue; legs rocket skywards, while dancers twist, cartwheel and kick, kick, kick!

British Dancers outside the Moulin Rouge. Left to right: Amy Gill - Michaela Rondelli - Lucy Monaghan - Jemilla Durham - Katie Hayward - Georgia Dewstow-Smith - Jessica Till - Rye Carpenter - Olivia James-Baird - Katie Malone - Jessica Toone

British Dancers outside the Moulin Rouge. Left to right: Amy Gill – Michaela Rondelli – Lucy Monaghan – Jemilla Durham – Katie Hayward – Georgia Dewstow-Smith – Jessica Till – Rye Carpenter – Olivia James-Baird – Katie Malone – Jessica Toone

In total, there are 26 British dancers among the 80-strong company, an international contingent matched only by Australians

In total, there are 26 British dancers among the 80-strong company, an international contingent matched only by Australians

Three of the British dancers behind-the-scenes. Left to right: Jemilla Durham Center Lucy Monaghan Right Jessica Toone

Three of the British dancers behind-the-scenes. Left to right: Jemilla Durham Center Lucy Monaghan Right Jessica Toone

Caroline Renno-Raynal is a proud Geordie who landed here from South Shields 16 years ago and hasn't looked back

Caroline Renno-Raynal is a proud Geordie who landed here from South Shields 16 years ago and hasn’t looked back 

The show’s long-standing artistic director, Janet Pharaoh, is from Rothwell, near Leeds, show supervisor Amanda is from Halifax, while her assistant, Jo, is also from Yorkshire.

It’s not just Yorkshire that is represented here, underneath the red windmill of the world’s best-known cabaret: there’s also Wrexham, Southampton and Glasgow. Meanwhile, principal dancer Caroline Renno-Raynal is a proud Geordie who landed here from South Shields 16 years ago and hasn’t looked back.

In total, there are 26 British dancers among the 80-strong company, an international contingent matched only by Australians — but add in the British professionals drilling the dancers in their carefully choreographed, scantily clad routines and this most Gallic of institutions starts to feel rather Anglophile.

‘Once they are here, they are all Moulin nationality,’ insists Janet, who was a dancer here herself before becoming artistic director two decades ago.

Janet Pharaoh (pictured here with the dancers) the Artistic Director is from Rothwell, near Leeds. Pictured front, left to right: Carole Renno- Raynal - Janet Pharaoh, Michaela - Katie Malone - Jessica Toone - Olivia - Jessica Till - Katie Hayward Back from left Amy Gill - Rye - Jemilla - Georgia

Janet Pharaoh (pictured here with the dancers) the Artistic Director is from Rothwell, near Leeds. Pictured front, left to right: Carole Renno- Raynal – Janet Pharaoh, Michaela – Katie Malone – Jessica Toone – Olivia – Jessica Till – Katie Hayward Back from left Amy Gill – Rye – Jemilla – Georgia

Left to right: Amy Gill , Michaela Rondelli, Georgia Dewstow-Smith, Lucy Monaghan , Jemilia Durham and Rye Carpenter

Left to right: Amy Gill , Michaela Rondelli, Georgia Dewstow-Smith, Lucy Monaghan , Jemilia Durham and Rye Carpenter

For those who do dare to bare, sometimes there's little more than a thong and a sprinkling of gems. In our achingly politically correct age, this could be perceived as demeaning, but Caroline and her peers insist there isn't anything lewd about the performance

For those who do dare to bare, sometimes there’s little more than a thong and a sprinkling of gems. In our achingly politically correct age, this could be perceived as demeaning, but Caroline and her peers insist there isn’t anything lewd about the performance

If true, Moulin’s population has Amazonian proportions. Some of the dancers who stride around this backstage labyrinth top 7ft when they’re resplendent in their heels and feathered headwear.

‘My perfect dancer is 175-178cm tall — 5ft 10in, with great, long legs, so when you do your kicks they come way above your head,’ says Janet, who has spent 40 of her 63 years here in Paris.

‘Then it comes down to personality, smile and charisma.’

Tall and slender (naturellement), with a booming voice — and an accent surely as broad as when she first left Yorkshire for France four days after her A-levels — Janet keeps a tight ship, whether speaking English, French or Franglais.

‘You have to have a certain amount of discipline,’ she insists. ‘Discipline is an integral part of dancing. If myself and my assistants have very loud voices, it’s because when you get 70-odd dancers in a general rehearsal you have to shout.’

On stage, it’s an utterly French affair. The lights lower, the music starts and the dancers sashay on to stage, lip-syncing with perfection to the French backing track.

The dancers in action. On stage, it's an utterly French affair. The lights lower, the music starts and the dancers sashay on to stage, lip-syncing with perfection to the French backing track

The dancers in action. On stage, it’s an utterly French affair. The lights lower, the music starts and the dancers sashay on to stage, lip-syncing with perfection to the French backing track

Katie Malone, 21, was the first Welsh dancer to join the company, auditioning in Paris in April and getting an invitation to join only an hour after executing her last cartwheel

Katie Malone, 21, was the first Welsh dancer to join the company, auditioning in Paris in April and getting an invitation to join only an hour after executing her last cartwheel

As the familiar tones of Offenbach's music take flight so, too, do the performers, shrieking as they leap into the air, all with deceptively limber, long-legged ease

As the familiar tones of Offenbach’s music take flight so, too, do the performers, shrieking as they leap into the air, all with deceptively limber, long-legged ease

Left to right Show Supervisor Amanda, who is from Halifax. She speaks to dancers Jennifer Keegan, 27, from Durham and Erin Blanchfield, 22, from Wallasey

Left to right Show Supervisor Amanda, who is from Halifax. She speaks to dancers Jennifer Keegan, 27, from Durham and Erin Blanchfield, 22, from Wallasey

But behind the scenes it’s like walking into a student bar in any bustling British city — northern accents, southern accents, Scottish, Irish, all blend in riotous harmony; even the French dancers (all eight of them) find themselves chatting in English.

Why is there such little home-grown talent? It’s all to do with the length of the French school day; when children finish school it’s already 5.30pm, says Janet. When’s the time for dance school?

Fanny, whose own love of British life extends to being something of an expert on the Royal Family, insists that wherever the girls come from, ‘when they go on stage they are representing France’.

This may be true, but some dancers speak barely a word of French when they get here.

Geordie Caroline Renno-Raynal, 41 next month, is pretty much fluent in French after 16 years here, although 'not like my husband, who is bilingual,' says the dancer, who is married to Olivier, a French-American actor

Geordie Caroline Renno-Raynal, 41 next month, is pretty much fluent in French after 16 years here, although ‘not like my husband, who is bilingual,’ says the dancer, who is married to Olivier, a French-American actor

Front: Katie Hayward, Back: Georgia Dewstow-Smith. The dancers get ready to go on stage. In one of their dressing rooms is a picture of the late Queen stuck to the wall

Front: Katie Hayward, Back: Georgia Dewstow-Smith. The dancers get ready to go on stage. In one of their dressing rooms is a picture of the late Queen stuck to the wall

Language lessons are provided, as is help in setting up bank accounts (pay starts at 3,500 euros, a month) and getting an all-important social security number.

Katie Malone, 21, was the first Welsh dancer to join the company, auditioning in Paris in April and getting an invitation to join only an hour after executing her last cartwheel. That’s some leap from dancing at Butlins, Minehead, via a stint serving in a pub near her family home in Wrexham.

‘It’s very different from my life in Wrexham,’ she says, with some understatement. While she’s been enjoying French pastries and exploring Paris on the Metro, others like a taste of home, slugging back cups of strong British tea backstage.

‘When a dancer goes home, they always bring back British food, Dairy Milk chocolate and other stuff that we can’t find in France since Marks & Spencer closed,’ says Fanny.

At the Moulin Rouge, it seems the more senior you are, the more flesh you're likely to have on show. Dancers start on the 'can-can line', and only once they've mastered that are they allowed to graduate to the 'topless line'

At the Moulin Rouge, it seems the more senior you are, the more flesh you’re likely to have on show. Dancers start on the ‘can-can line’, and only once they’ve mastered that are they allowed to graduate to the ‘topless line’

Left to right: Katie Malone - Katie Hayward - William Jaggs- Olivia - Amy - Michaela - Georgia - Lucy - Jemilla - Rye - Harry Lydon - Jessia Till - Jessica Toone

Left to right: Katie Malone – Katie Hayward – William Jaggs- Olivia – Amy – Michaela – Georgia – Lucy – Jemilla – Rye – Harry Lydon – Jessia Till – Jessica Toone

Caroline Renno-Raynal. As principal, the 5ft 9in dancer's face ¿ and body ¿ are front and centre of the show six nights a week

Caroline Renno-Raynal. As principal, the 5ft 9in dancer’s face — and body — are front and centre of the show six nights a week

Georgia Dewstow-Smith. Stroll backstage at this Parisian institution and you could be forgiven for thinking you'd landed somewhere between the Dales and the Pennines

Georgia Dewstow-Smith. Stroll backstage at this Parisian institution and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d landed somewhere between the Dales and the Pennines

There are other nods to the home nation, too. A picture of the late Queen is stuck to the wall in one of the dressing rooms.

Geordie Caroline Renno-Raynal, 41 next month, is pretty much fluent in French after 16 years here, although ‘not like my husband, who is bilingual,’ says the dancer, who is married to Olivier, a French-American actor.

Her practical northern roots are still there, though. She has an electric blanket rigged up in her dressing room (this is a perk of her seniority since she became principal eight years ago; more junior members of the company have to share) to ward off the chill when she’s between numbers. And she needs it. As principal, the 5ft 9in dancer’s face — and body — are front and centre of the show six nights a week. And she’s very exposed.

At the Moulin Rouge, it seems the more senior you are, the more flesh you’re likely to have on show. Dancers start on the ‘can-can line’, and only once they’ve mastered that are they allowed to graduate to the ‘topless line’. (It’s not compulsory and for the larger-chested, it’s not allowed).

Pictured left is dancer Jessica Moore. Right, Lauren Turner. Some of the dancers top 7ft when they're resplendent in their heels and feathered headwear

Pictured left is dancer Jessica Moore. Right, Lauren Turner. Some of the dancers top 7ft when they’re resplendent in their heels and feathered headwear

Leaping into action: Left Sébastien Golenko (french) Right Olivia James-Baird

Leaping into action: Left Sébastien Golenko (french) Right Olivia James-Baird

For those who do dare to bare, sometimes there’s little more than a thong and a sprinkling of gems.

In our achingly politically correct age, this could be perceived as demeaning, but Caroline and her peers insist there isn’t anything lewd about the performance.

‘It’s strange, I can remember saying I would never do it [go topless]. Then I said if I was going to do it, I would do it at the Moulin Rouge,’ Caroline says. ‘By the time I did, it was just so natural — it’s just like part of the costume. It is all very tasteful.’

Indeed, Janet Pharaoh says her dancers are so modest, they won’t even go topless on holiday, which has its pitfalls.

‘They end up with bikini marks and that will not do,’ she laughs.

Pictured from left: Michaela Rondelli - Olivia James-Baird - Katie Malone - Amy Gill - Jemilla Durham

Pictured from left: Michaela Rondelli – Olivia James-Baird – Katie Malone – Amy Gill – Jemilla Durham

Left: Olivia James-Baird, Right: Georgia Dewstow. In October, some 300 dancers ¿female and male ¿ queued for the chance to be put through their paces in Leeds and London

Left: Olivia James-Baird, Right: Georgia Dewstow. In October, some 300 dancers —female and male — queued for the chance to be put through their paces in Leeds and London

Perhaps reflecting more relaxed French attitudes to nudity, the cabaret is billed as a family show.

Caroline would certainly agree — she’s already introduced her three-year-old son, Dylan, to it.

Like most of her peers, her journey to the Moulin Rouge began via childhood dance lessons.

She turned down a place at the Royal Ballet School when she was ten — ‘I was too young to leave home’ — and a growth spurt in her teens reinforced the idea that ballet wasn’t for her. ‘I think I always knew [her calling],’ she laughs. ‘I was very shy when I was growing up and I can remember my dance teachers saying: ‘It’s crazy how you go on stage and become a different person.’ Even now when I go on stage I’m not me.’

She’s done two stints at the Moulin Rouge, the first a six-month stay fresh from Blackpool, the second a year or so later. ‘I thought it would be for another six months, but then I met Olivier,’ she says.

I wonder how hard it is to maintain a svelte frame? Moulin Rouge dancers are gently reminded to be careful if their weight nudges up by more than a few pounds, but none of them is waif-like and all those kicks ensure slender thighs which are like pure steel.

Writer Beth Hale behind-the-scenes of the iconic Moulin Rouge.

Writer Beth Hale behind-the-scenes of the iconic Moulin Rouge.

Moulin Rouge dancers are gently reminded to be careful if their weight nudges up by more than a few pounds, but none of them is waif-like and all those kicks ensure slender thighs which are like pure steel

Moulin Rouge dancers are gently reminded to be careful if their weight nudges up by more than a few pounds, but none of them is waif-like and all those kicks ensure slender thighs which are like pure steel

Lest the sequins fool you, in September Caroline was back in the UK to do the Great North Run and she knocks out half marathons for fun. No wonder she’s confident she has a few more years left in her before retirement.

Stricter is the requirement to maintain the same shade and length of hair. Dancers rattle through ten to 12 costumes per show, so they wear wigs and hairpieces made from real hair to facilitate the rapid changes. This means that changing hair colour can be a costly headache.

And the woman whose approval they all seek is the artistic director, Janet. Getting it is almost as much of an accolade as an invitation to advance between the dance lines.

In October, some 300 dancers —female and male — queued for the chance to be put through their paces in Leeds and London and perhaps win a coveted invitation to join her very well-drilled team.

Four dancers were successful, and two of the latest recruits are being put through the paces of the can-can, in petticoats, for the first time when the Mail arrives at the cabaret.

They are Erin Blanchfield, 22, from Wallasey, and Jennifer Keegan, 27, from Durham.

Dancers have to learn to whip off silver, sequinned trousers while dancing and 'pop' the red-feathered folds of the costume the dancers dub 'tomatoes'

Dancers have to learn to whip off silver, sequinned trousers while dancing and ‘pop’ the red-feathered folds of the costume the dancers dub ‘tomatoes’

This name doesn't do justice to what is one of the most glamorous moments in the show as fronds of red feathers unfurl from around the girls' faces and become flamboyant skirts

This name doesn’t do justice to what is one of the most glamorous moments in the show as fronds of red feathers unfurl from around the girls’ faces and become flamboyant skirts

They are being drilled in everything from dance steps to costume management. They will have to learn to whip off silver, sequinned trousers while dancing and ‘pop’ the red-feathered folds of the costume the dancers dub ‘tomatoes’.

This name doesn’t do justice to what is one of the most glamorous moments in the show as fronds of red feathers unfurl from around the girls’ faces and become flamboyant skirts. And it is learning the can-can itself that is the most gruelling.

‘It’s fiendishly horrible,’ says Janet. ‘It’s the complete opposite of ballet. It comes from a kind of street dance; you can’t just throw yourself into it or you would injure yourself. You have to kick the leg up high, with music that’s very fast. It’s all about speed and stamina.’

No wonder Erin and Jennifer are rubbing their feet as we talk. They are doing two hours of can-can training a day, six days a week, in readiness for their first show on Monday.

Georgia Dewstow-Smith laughs backstage as the dancer wears a glamorous gold bejeweled outfit and headdress to perform

Georgia Dewstow-Smith laughs backstage as the dancer wears a glamorous gold bejeweled outfit and headdress to perform

Michaela Rondelli and Olivia James-Baird tuching up their makeup before they go on stage in their red, white and blue sequined dresses

Michaela Rondelli and Olivia James-Baird tuching up their makeup before they go on stage in their red, white and blue sequined dresses

Amy Gill, Lucy Monaghan and Michaela Rondelli wearing clown-style white sheer outfits and silver heels for their dance

Amy Gill, Lucy Monaghan and Michaela Rondelli wearing clown-style white sheer outfits and silver heels for their dance

Sitting on the edge of the stage, having gone through a particularly gruelling can-can drill (cartwheel after cartwheel around the edge of the stage in a costume weighing 5kg), they are surprisingly good-humoured.

Walking around like some kind of exotic bird with a towering headdress or back-pack is hard enough; try ‘doing it with 60 other people on stage, walking down steps with a smile on your face,’ says Jen.

A glass of wine (red, of course) at the end of the day, ice packs and weekly physio have already become routine.

Rehearsals will become marginally less arduous once the first show is over. But, until then, Janet, Amanda — who is in her 50s but is currently doing rather intimidating handstands in the corner — and their team are on the case.

But it’s all very exciting, if ‘not quite real’. Yet.

What are they looking forward to most? ‘When we pop our feathers and the audience oohs,’ says Jen.

And with that a Yorkshire accent interrupts. Amanda is waiting.

It’s time to go. There’s a show to get ready for.

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