As a three-time repeat visitor of Paris, I’d accomplished most of my must-do list of the city – gazed at the Eiffel Tower, perused patisseries for the perfect macaron, admired French Impressionist art at the Louvre, etc…but I’d still never managed to cross “Attend a REAL cabaret show” off of my bucket list.
Working in the entertainment sector of the advertising industry has afforded me endless opportunities to attend musicals and theatre shows in Toronto, so while cabaret was not an unfamiliar concept to me, attending a performance in the city it originated from – the City of Lights – promised to be one of those authentically French experiences that I was chasing.
So, what is a cabaret?
Modern cabaret can be characterized as entertainment featuring music, song, dance, recitation, or drama performed on stage at a nightclub, while the audience is seated at tables (as opposed to dancing). The variety of acts are introduced by an MC known as a “master of ceremonies” who interacts with the audience who is usually drinking or dining during the show. Performed by an ensemble of actors and artists, cabarets are often geared towards a more mature audience with an illicit, underground vibe.
Where did it originate from?
While the word cabaret originally derived from “tavern” in the 16th century, cabaret as we know it today evolved from the 18th century café-chantant that offered food along with a formal program of entertainment.
Rudolph Salis was a theatrical agent and entrepreneur who is thought to be the founder of modern cabaret in 1881 with Le Chat Noir (originally Cabaret Artistique). The establishment brought together clientele that was – as historian Paul Bourget described – “a fantastic mixture of writers and painters, of journalists and students, of employees and high-livers, as well as models, prostitutes and true grand dames searching for exotic experiences.” Located in the bohemian neighbourhood of Montmartre, the variety show combined music and other forms of entertainment and political commentary and satire.
What are some notable cabarets in Paris?
Opened in 1889, the Moulin Rouge is the oldest and arguably the most renowned of the French cabaret shows, recognized by the iconic, red imitation windmill perched atop the roof. Established singers like Edith Piaf graced the stage and any art history major who managed to stay awake during class would recognize the venue posters by the painter Toulouse-Lautrec.
Also attracting the biggest names in the performing arena, Le Lido is a mix of cabaret and burlesque that opened in 1946, located on the Champs-Élysées. It’s known for being an exotic display of dancers and singers, bedecked in an opulent array of thousands of dollars worth of feathers and rhinestones, with juggling and magic acts interspersed throughout.
Le Crazy Horse occupies what was formerly 12 wine cellars that were knocked down to form one, 150-seat venue. While the seating may be modest (in comparison to Moulin Rouge and Lido), it’s the only thing that is. Nude female dancers take to the stage and perform provocative stripteases alongside a variety of magicians, jugglers, and mimes.
Which cabaret should I go to?
If you are looking for a classic cabaret show that is steeped in tradition, Moulin Rouge is your best bet as you’ll get to see the can-can dance performed the same as it was 100 years ago in a grand spectacle as it’s the largest of the venues.
Centrally located and a similar Vegas-style as Moulin Rouge – with acrobatics, huge, feathered headpieces and extravagant costumes – the Lido has kept up with the times, incorporating technological wizardry and special effects.
Not for the faint-hearted (or the easily offended), Le Crazy Horse is the more artistic and risqué option. As the smallest of the venues, the show is an intimate and sensual display of femininity and perfect bodies, yet maintains a lighthearted, whimsical air.
What was it really like?
While I adore Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, I was looking for a show that was out of the ordinary and boundary-pushing than traditional so I reserved a late night ticket for Le Crazy Horse.
Not wanting to risk being late from getting lost on the maze-like Metro, I took an Uber down Avenue George V towards the Seine. Pulling up to the front of Le Crazy Horse –just before the river and next to a Balenciaga store – neon lights of glittering, full red lips bedecked the venue.
The entire experience was almost surreal from the minute I was checked in by the efficient hostess and led down into the intimate, lower level of the venue. The only way to do justice to express what the cabaret show at Le Crazy Horse was REALLY like is through the series of 60 Thoughts I Had During A Sexy French Cabaret in Paris:
First impressions upon entering the room:
1. This room seems so tiny and yet the wall-to-wall mirrors make it look so large.
2. Why does it feel like all the sound has been sucked out of here?
3. Was this a bomb shelter for burlesque dancers back during the war?
4. Looks like Austin Powers’ love lair on steroids in here.
5. Must be a bitch to clean all this red velvet-covered seating.
6. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t sit down…
7. All the seats are in pairs and I’m the loser flying solo.
8. They’re offering to take commemorative photos?
9. No, I don’t want a photo of me sitting here by myself.
10. Oh well, perfect spot for my new purse.
11. This MC is hilarious! I’ve never seen a man wear so many sequins.
12. Oh no, he’s talk-singing to me and now I’m deeply uncomfortable.
13. So much eye contact. Play it cool Teri!
14. What do I do?! Do I smile? Sing along? Can I look away?!
15. I regret not getting package that includes the bottle of champagne.
16. Holy crap! A vodka soda here is 20 euro?!
17. Why so expensive? Are the ice cubes made of unicorn tears?!
18. Tears of ex-boyfriends?? Ok, that’d be worth it.
About all the naked women:
19. Woah! So they are like NUDE-nude.
20. So this isn’t a “use your imagination” kind of place.
21. They must save a shit ton of money on costumes.
22. I guess the price for providing a tassel per breast was too pricy.
23. The decorative Greek statues are dressed more modestly.
24. Why do they even bother wearing that thin, black strip over their hoo-hahs?
25. Newsflash: It ain’t censoring nothing.
26. The tape is about as effective as putting it on the crook of my elbow.
27. Imagine the hours of grooming necessary to be THAT hairless every night.
28. Unless they have alopecia that only affects the private parts…
29. I’m exhausted just looking at them…
30. They must be so cold in the winter, sans hair.
31. Imagine if they saw someone they knew in the audience..so embarrassing.
32. Then again, if I had a body like that I’d walk the streets naked.
33. “I’m naked. YOU’RE WELCOME.”
34. As charitable as a nude Mother Teresa.
35. Ugh…I need to do more squats or crunches.
36. Maybe drink more water?
37. Less tacos (haha pun intended) more salads.
38. Who am I kidding, I could never give up pasta even for a perfect figure.
39. I’m hungry…what will I eat after the show…
About the various acts through the show:
40. Imagine describing this job to people: “I sensually roll around a lounge chair while light artistically dances across my naked body. And you’re in marketing? How fascinating.”
41. They must have a fantastic lingerie collection…
42. …and enough wigs to go into the witness protection program.
43. The chick next to me is being more vulgar than the guys in the audience!
44. What is she cat-calling? I wish I spoke more French.
45. Why is she breathing so heavily??!!! Deeply disturbed.
46. I wonder if anyone will notice if I slip a tranquilizer in her champagne.
47. They’re super coordinated AND in heels no less.
48. Must be a killer calf workout.
49. I can barely cross the street without falling over.
50. Clothes is clearly the culprit for why I’m so off-balance.
51. How do they manage to be so sexy and cute at the same time?
52. So français of them!
53. If I were ever tempted to bat for the other team, it’d be now.
54. Nope. Still super straight.
55. Shadow puppets for a mid show act was an unusual choice…
56. Making bunnies getting eaten by a shark..both macabre and impressive.
57. So realistic. WHAT IS THIS WITCHCRAFT?!
58. How did he create his own side profile with just his hands???
59. I’m going to stop trying to understand because this is bananas.
60. So much nudity and athleticism and shadow puppets is what impresses me? Typical.