A Canadian in Paris at the Moulin Rouge

Le Moulin Rouge is as emblematic of Paris as the Arc de Triomphe or the Eiffel Tower.

The world’s most celebrated night spot, the model for cabarets across Europe and beyond, has a scandalously colorful and turbulent 132-year history. Immortalized in the art of Toulouse-Lautrec and the inspiration for novels, films, stage musicals and even a Canadian-made ballet, the Moulin Rouge has survived fires, near bankruptcies, the German occupation of Paris in the Second World War and most recently the pandemic.

It has welcomed patrons from every walk of life from royalty on down. The historic list of star attractions features such legends as Josephine Baker, Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli. Even ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov has trod the boards of its hallowed stage.

What many of the 600,000 patrons who annual pass beneath its iconic red windmill entrance probably don’t know is that the Moulin Rouge is not quite as quintessentially French as you might think.

It’s owned and operated by Jean-Jacques Clerico, grandson of the man who from 1955 onward reinvented the Moulin Rouge for the modern age. Most of his staff are French, but the 60-member performing cast of long-legged showgirls and their tall, handsome partners represent 14 different nationalities from around the globe. Currently four of them are from Canada.

One of them, 23-year-old Allie Goodbun, is from Woodstock, Ont. In a lengthy interview, Goodbun offered the Star a fascinating account of her journey to the Moulin Rouge and a backstage perspective on what she describes as “an incredibly well-oiled machine.”

Goodbun began taking dance classes at age five. She attended a Woodstock studio, Elite Dance Centre, that taught just about everything: ballet, contemporary, jazz, tap, hip hop, you name it. She was also tall by dance standards.

“I was always the girl that towered above the others in my group,” she said.

At a full-grown height of five-foot-nine, a conventional career in ballet was likely not an option. But along the way Goodbun began to think about how those long legs could work to her advantage.

As a teen she attended summer camps in New York taught by Radio City Rockettes. At age 16 she moved to Toronto, completing high school online, intensifying her professional dance training and exploring opportunities in the film and TV industry. She played gossipy Cassie in the fourth and fifth seasons of Family Channel’s “The Next Step” and, after high school graduation, enrolled at U of T to study kinesiology.

Then she heard that the Moulin Rouge was auditioning in Canada.

“At the time I thought it was a bit bizarre they were coming to Canada, but any opportunity that comes my way I go for it,” she said.

Goodbun flew to audition in Vancouver. She made sure to give Janet Pharaoh, the company’s associate artistic director, in her resume personally.

“I introduced myself and then took a spot front and center so Janet would have to notice me. There must have been a hundred to start. She had us doing cartwheels across the floor and splits. At the end of the day, there were 10 of us.”

Goodbun and Vancouverite Laura Renstad were offered contracts to start in February 2020. A month later, the Moulin Rouge closed due to the pandemic, a closure that lasted 18 months.

Goodbun had planned to take a two-year hiatus from university to perform in Paris. Instead she was able to complete her bachelor’s degree. Looking for ways to supplement the income she was making from TV gigs, Goodbun launched Flex, her own online fitness business. By the time she was finally able to move to Paris in November last year, she had more than 500 students.

The first thing Goodbun was discovered, apart from the Canadians and a sizable contingent of Australian dancers, most of the rest are from Europe and have studied English, which for practicality is the Moulin Rouge’s most commonly spoken language. She also discovered that while its expectations are as high as those famous cancan kicks, the company treats its dancers very well.

“The way they help the new arrivals individually is incredible. The Moulin Rouge owns several apartments so you have a place already. They help with everything from getting a phone line to how to do your taxes. I’m only ever a text message away from getting help with any problem.”

The Moulin Rouge has been offering the same one-hour, 45-minute show, “Féerie,” since 1999. There are two performances a night. You can combine supper with the first and champagne with both. The show intersperses spectacular dance numbers with specialty acts that give the dancers a brief respite from an athletically demanding performance.

The most famous dance routine is, of course, the cancan, but it’s one of many routines, which means a lot of costume changes as frilly skirts are exchanged for sequined gowns and more ostrich feathers than you’d see on a good day in the Australian outback.

“There are roughly a thousand costumes in the show,” said Goodbun. “I have nine or 10 changes, so over two shows each night that’s as many as 20 changes.”

Apart from learning the choreography the public sees, an important part of preparing to dance at the Moulin Rouge is learning the backstage choreography. Goodbun shadowed one of the line dancers to learn every detail of makeup and costuming.

Costume changes often have to be completed within 90 seconds. A small army of dressers is mobilized to assist, but every dancer has to know exactly where to go and how to get there. If not, total confusion would soon reign.

“It’s a system they’ve perfected over many years,” said Goodbun.

Goodbun is well into a one-year contract, but now that she’s settled into her own apartment in the Montmartre neighborhood she’s hoping to stay longer. She’s taking French classes three times a week so she can negotiate the city beyond the Moulin Rouge. Because her work day does not start until the evening, Goodbun is also hoping to keep her Flex business as active as she can.

“I love Paris and I love the work. Altogether it’s a dream come true.”

MC

Michael Crabb is a Toronto-based freelance writer who covers opera and dance for the Star.

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