Performing in the Cabaret

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Paris’s cabarets offered a variety of entertainment: comedians, clowns, and acrobats. But singers and dancers, with their lascivious lyrics and choreography, attracted the largest crowds. As Charles Zidler, co-owner of the Moulin Rouge, declared, “Our stars are women who bring us money, and we live on them.” Indeed, Zidler’s and other cabarets hired famous female performers to lure spectators: Loïe Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Yvette Guilbert, Jean Avril, and Josephine Baker. However, anonymous dancers performed most of the entertainment.

Until 1867, the French state censored song lyrics and forbade performers from wearing costumes or masks, using stage sets, speaking prose, or performing pantomime. By the 1880s, those restrictions had relaxed, so that while cartwheels, jump splits, and showing the dancers’ underwear to the audience often resulted in public outrage, these risqué performances were never banned.

Stars of the cabarets artistiques and other anonymous performers were frequently depicted in popular print publications and in the paintings and drawings of artists who attended the cabarets, such as Jules Chéret, Edgar Degas, Alexander Steinlen, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Through magazine covers and color inserts like those displayed here, even people who never attended the cabarets could learn about the most fashionable dances including the can-can, the apache and kickapoo dances, and the tango.

In the First World War, the cabaret stage served as a platform for the promotion of French nationalism, as singers and dancers trekked off to the front. In the interwar period, the newly invented gramophone and the radio rendered the experience of live cabaret performances less appealing to the public, so that, at the start of the Second World War, several venues had been transformed into cinemas or music-halls, or had closed altogether. Still, as the success of films like French Cancan (1955) and Moulin Rouge (2001) indicates, the cabaret artistique continues to enchant.