We're about to experience one of France's best-known shows, Moulin Rouge; not in Paris, but live on stage at the Pullman Gurgaon Central Park. Over the next half hour, we're entertained with high-energy shimmying, acrobatics and the dance troupe's trademark routine - the cancan, complete with flowing, frillyskirts and shouts of "Allez!". Then, just as we're getting into the act, it's over. In Paris, Moulin Rouge's current show, Feerie, runs for nearly two hours, as it takes you from a garden to a pirate ship and, finally, a circus with clowns and acrobats. The performance here is a mere teaser.
With minutes to go before she appears on stage, Katie Hayward, a 25-year-old with the troupe, is busy fixing her sparkly neck piece before a mirror. I ask her if she's nervous; it's her first tour since she started with the troupe a year ago. "Slightly," she mumbles. There's a slight indifference to her tone, perhaps an attempt to guard her whimsical inner world. So, we try the definitive ice-breaker: small talk. After a few questions about her life, food and the other girls, she drops her guard. "An adrenaline rush runs through my veins whenever I am on stage," she sighs. "More than the costumes and the thought of missing steps, I worry about the audience's reaction, because that's what we're working so hard for."
The troupe poses backstage after getting into gear
Each girl has a different way of preparing for the night. Some huddle up to share gossip and laughs, others meditate. In Paris, 450 people, including dressers, makeup artists, musicians and lightmen are part of the Moulin Rouge entourage. It ispatterned chaos. On the road though, they travel light. Only 17 have made it to India.
"We're like one big family; we help each other in getting the steps right and watch each other's back on stage," Katie says. "Unless we work in harmony, the chemistry and magic won't work," she adds, almost in an attempt to reassure herself. Then you begin to look past her makeup, the giant feathered head gear and her super skimpy, jewel-studded bikini and wonder what it takes to stay grounded amidst this fantasy world.
On a typical night in Paris, the Moulin Rouge is besieged by an audience of 900 from around the world. Between sips of pink champagne, in their silk bodice gowns and velvet lapels matched to pocket squares, Paris' high-brow crowd seeks 19th-century French grandeur; a magical savoir faire that even 123 years after it first began continues to excite and inspire crowds looking for some real , or unreal entertainment.
The girls do their own make up while on tour
For the girls, the spotlight is a hard beast to tame. But 29-year-old Natalie Sims seems to have done this well. She is the troupe's female solo star. Her journey from Britain, where she was raised, to Paris, began at the age of 10, when she saw a poster of the renowned Can-can dancer nicknamed 'La Gouloue' in her mother's bedroom.
"I worked for years to get accepted at the Moulin Rouge, but the challenge began once I did", she says, reflecting on how life changed in a land where she didn't speak the language. "I spent hours perfecting my hard-kicks, cart-wheels, spinning and had to pick up the flair and poise a showgirl within weeks of getting there", she adds. Nora Mogalle, 29, agrees with her. "Since the spotlight is always in your face, there's no passive moment at all. But the effort pays off when the audience cheers you on and sings to your tunes".
Picking out costumes in between acts
There's also the pressure of maintaining that stereotypical body type. The dancers are only allowed a couple of kilos either way on the scale. But, it isn't just about the look. The troupe takes pride in their appearance. "It's our machine. Like sports people, we eat for nutrition and energy," says 26-year-old Australian dancer Shane Collard, the only man from the troupe making an appearance in Delhi.
"We're healthy on the inside, and the outside." The girls nod in agreement. Shane is one of 15 male performers who dance alongside Moulin Rouge's 70 'Doriss girls'. Each one of them can easily set the standards for sexy. While the girls average 1.75 metres, the lads must all be taller than 1.85 metres. Their sweaty, chiseled faces and lean, muscular legs may well have been the prototype for Barbie's Ken. Shane knows he's a man in a woman's world but finds the idea more flattering than challenging. "We work hard to keep pace with these sexy women, but we're tickled to see husbands nudging their wives once we get on stage", he gushes.
Performing the Moulin Rouge's most famous act, the can-can
Tours bring their own challenges. Since the troupe never adjusts its costumes, the audience's sensibilities can be a worry; then again, no one goes to a Moulin Rouge show expecting to see women covered from head to toe. The girls usually have only few hours to adapt to the new lighting and stage. Most of their 1.3 tons of gear is flown in three weeks in advance. The pressure to represent the legendary cabaret (and French culture in general) makes flawlessness an imperative.
With that almost revered red windmill and the dramatic tales that emerge from behind a burst of feathers and rhinestone, Moulin Rouge remains a story of human emotions, onstage and off it.
Two of the troupe's Doriss Girls examine their costume and makeup in a mirror before heading out on stage.
Tickets (including dinner and champagne) from Pound 175
Photos by Chandradeep Kumar