Monday, November 19, 2018

DIRTY DANCING or, the highest kickers of them all.


I didn’t set out to write a history of the can-can, and I’m not going to. I’m sure someone – or several someones -- from the dance world has/have done it in impeccable style already. Moi? I’ve seen more than one named person described as ‘the inventor of the can can’ and more than one ‘bal champêtre’ designated as its cradle, but let’s just say that it was well-established by 1829, when 19 year-old Mdlle Angiola Sauve was given three months’ jail for ‘offense contre la pudeur’, in other words, having danced the chahut or the cancan at the Elysée des Dames, rue du Montparnasse. The policeman who bore witness was able to demonstrate in court the difference between the steps of the two routines. Or the polka piquée. Or the galop. Or the cachuca.

Of course, the cancan of the early nineteenth century had little in common with what passes for a version of the dance, even in Parisian halls, today. There were no kicking lines of Rockettes! It was a joyous, rude, frenetic routine, danced not solo but in a couple. It was danced to country and suburban music in country and suburban venues by country and suburban folk, by milliners, apprentices and dressmakers … but, as these things do, as the dance became more popular, more Parisian, and more extravagant, as its featured high kicks became higher, it gradually eased away from being an ‘all-action sport’ to being a ‘spectator sport’. At the popular but distinctly licentious ‘bals de l’Opéra’ the management outfitted, and even paid, good young dancers to take part. And favourite stars of the genre, such as Amélie-Marguerite Badet, dite Rigolboche (‘la croustillante Rigolboche, reine du cancan, avec son grand écart...’), became personalities in Paris life, and the dance hall of M Mabille, the names of Chicard and Brididi, the stuff of legend.

The Morning Post of London reprinted a Parisian article (24 April 1841) describing the ‘modern’ version of what went on in ‘Les Bals Masqués and Parés of Paris in 1841’ which must have made a few English jaws drop. And a few lusty and libertine gentlemen hasten for the Channel ferry and the ‘tumultuous and passionate pleasure’ to be found in ‘the disheveled, frantic balls’ of France.

In 1833, at the Bal de l’Opéra ,‘at three or four in the morning, a party of young men, half of whom were attired as females, invaded the house and began dancing the chahut, a quadrille so revoltingly indecent and obscene that the police very properly interposed…’. But it was a quartet of men, half of whom dressed as females, who were to export the cancan to Britain and further fame, and that’s where I’m going to pick up the first strand of my story. 

Mons Clodomir Ricard was a Parisian woodcarver who loved to dance. And his dancing, eccentric to the extreme, soon caught the eye. He was engaged at such Parisian dance halls as the Casino-Cadet, the Château des Fleurs, and at the Casino of Asnières, before he encouraged three of his friends to join him in his crazy Quadille. Thus, Clodomir became Clodoche, a weird highlander with a false nose, huge sideburns and two huge buck teeth, Mons Liard became Flageolet the fireman with a too-short coat, too-large pants, and a huge headpiece, Mons Lord was La Normande and Mons Michallat La Comète, the one a burlesque baby-famer the other a busty fishermaiden. 

Needless to say, their version of the ‘naughty’ dances was professed a parody, which has always been a grand excuse for taking said ‘naughtiness’ to a higher level. The Clodoches quartet became one of the star attractions of the Bals de l’Opéra, and the theatre soon called.

First the Théâtre de la Gaîté for Paris la Nuit, later at the Châtelet, in La Lanterne Magique, ‘the famous members of the bal d’opéra’ were featured in the wild quadrille which the press assured ‘however dévergonde it may be, it is far from exhibiting the indecency of certain dances of the middle ages and other negro terpsichorean feats with which the slave-owners were so greatly amused’.

It was George Vining of the Princess’s Theatre who had the courage to hire the quartet for suspicious London. They (‘the notorious French grotesque dancers from the Théâtre Impériale du Châtelet’) were introduced into ‘one of the most spirited gipsy ballets ever seen’ in the second act of Watts Phillips’ The Huguenot Captain, and the cancan was on its way in Britain. ‘[It] combines all that we have been accustomed to admire in the late Mr Flexmore and the living Paynes, joined to a wild fun that is probably the growth of many hundreds of masked balls and Cancan dances at casinos’. ‘Bizarre and amusing’. The music for their act was supplied by the conductor, Charles Hall, but the choreography for their Callot Dance, I would guess, was of their own manufacture, rather than by the ballet’s dance designer, John Milano. ‘They do not appear to have any bones or joints, and those they have are in the wrong places. Their dancing is weird, incomprehensible and funny. It is dancing that makes one laugh … there is nothing in it, not a motion or a look, that is vulgar or offensive ...’ ‘With these dancers alone the piece would become the talk of the town’.

But ‘those dancers’ could only be in one place at a time, and the cancan, as it was otherwise rearranged to suit national proclivities, had the world open to it. When British dances Clara, Laura and Fanny Morgan were hired as star dancers in Vienna for Pied de mouton, two French ladies were included to dance ‘the real Parisian cancan as danced con furore at the Jardin Mabille and similar places of resort’, in Berlin the dance was inserted into the convivial scenes of La Dame aux caméllias and La Vie Parisienne, America got its first glimpse of the cancan from a French troupe playing Les Amours de Cléopâtre in October 1867, at the New York Théâtre Français, and London the same year brought two more versions of the dance out, from rather unlikely sources.

The first was in the course of a Benefit staged by Mrs Swanborough at her Strand Theatre, with the principal ladies of the company playing Byron’s burlesque of Ivanhoe opposite the aristocratic play-acting amateurs of the time. William Lauderdale Maitland, ‘a remarkably strange person … a relation of the Countess de Chabannes’, who would, with his brother, bring real Parisian opéra-bouffe to England, played Rebecca, the Marquis Townshend played Isaac and Lord Arthur Pelham Clinton (an unashamed homosexual with a taste for lowlife drag-queens) was Cedric. Alas, the one outraged review of this occasion which I have read, says only that the cancan was danced, and not by whom. But I am sure it was not Eleanor Bufton or Ada Swanborough! Maybe Elise Holt? Or maybe Mr Maitland?

At Christmas, however, the ‘straight’ cancan got its most notable boost yet. At the Lyceum, in W S Gilbert's pantomime Cock Robin (etc). As part of a festival of dance, a longside Miss Esther Austin of St John’s Wood, who had been principal dancing at the Paris Gaîété, and, here, was Harlequina in the harlequinade, with Misses Page and Grosvenor as columbines, a grand ballet of the animated flowers (100 coryphées) starring a Madlle Sophie and Espinosa, a ballet of gold and silver fishes, ‘The Wedding Procession of the Pet Dickies’ and Chapino’s kiddie ballet, Mademoiselle Finette, ‘of the Bal Mabille’(who features also in the 1867 courtesans' directory Les joyeuses dames de Paris), led the Milano choreographed ‘Delirious Dance of Delight’, ‘an extravagant quadrille in which the gentlemen caper about most briskly and kick their feet up to extreme height. The ladies do likewise and so display as much of the leg as a ballet dancer, though they do not wear tights, but ordinary boots, stockings etc’. As a sop to British pudeur they also wore plenty of underwear (‘the ladies’ style of dress on this occasion was different from that in which the dance is done in Paris’) but some of the tighter-lipped papers refused even to mention what was claimed to be ‘the first time on the English stage...' of the piece of dirty dancing, nor the fact that the routine was encored on opening night.

Finette and the cancan (or really the cancan and Finette) and as soon as the panto was over, she emigrated to the vastness of the Alhambra for a three-moths engagement. And this time she could not be ignored. The ‘new Anglo-French ballet’ mounted by Milano was entitled Mabille in London and she was largely featured in the cancan in the ‘Parisian Carnival Quadrille’ section, with the great Fred Evans as her male counterpart as an Englishman in Paris. He did a hornpipe, she kicked his hat off with her high-heeled boot in traditional fashion, ‘assisted by Miss L[ardy?] Wilson and numerous coryphées under supervision of M Milano’ -- 'Gracefulness is not cultivated … elasticity of limb and a certain kind of grotesqueness take its place'. Betsy Sismondi was there to provide the more usual kind of ‘ballet’.

I don’t know what became of Finette. I imagine she went back to France. If she were actually from there. But there were plenty of lassies straining at the leash to take her place. In versions proper or slightly improper. Esther Austin gave her version, politely named ‘the French Quadrille’ at the Pavilion, the City of London Theatre billed ‘Madlle Fanchette of the Cirque Impériale and her sisters Maria, Janette and Sophia in the cancan, assisted by the most lovely and graceful ballet dancers in the world’, the Marylebone Theatre used the same quartet in the burlesque Lucrezia Borgia, but the most notable cancan, in 1867-8 Britain, was at Covent Garden. It preceded even the Cock Robin performance, which had been so lavishly advertised as ‘the first’. It just wasn’t called a cancan. Not yet. It soon would be.

18 November 1867 is an important date in the history of the British Musical Theatre (of which history Wikipedia says I am ‘the pope’!). John Russell produced, at Covent Garden, the first real and significant, unbotched English-language production of one of the great works of the French opéra-bouffe tradition. That tradition which went hand in hand with the heyday of Second Empire Paris and its ‘national dance’, the cancan. The musical was the brilliant La Grande-Duchesse, which, like Orphée aux enfers and others from the same stable included, of course, a ‘delirious dance of delight’ of its own. But what is in the 21st century known as ‘the cancan from Orphée aux enfers’ was designated a ‘galop infernale’. I don’t know what the difference is, but it seems to me to have been a simple one of terminology. Maybe the gendarme who took poor Mlle Sauve to court for her ‘dirty dancing’ could demonstrate the difference: he seems to have been well up in choreography.

Mr Russell (of whom I have written elsewhere) seems to have been a fine hand at casting. For his month or so of limited season, he cast former child singing-dancing-acting star Julia Mathews as the Duchess, and for the piece’s high-kicking yeeee-hay finale, teamed her with the best pantomime/dancing family group of all. That same Payne family whom the critic had mentioned in his review of the Clodoches. Their routine brought down the house. But it wasn’t the cancan. Not officially. The cancan was that grungy bit of lowlife stuff (ooooh!) from Mabille.

When La Grande-Duchesse went out to the grateful countryside in 1868, Julia and the Paynes went with it, but when it came back to town, Julia wasn’t there. So Russell called in the non pareil Mrs Howard Paul. She was a little old, but she sang and acted the part to perfection. But she did NOT dance the chahut or the can-can! So someone from somewhere pulled up a Mademoiselle/Madame Adrienne La Ferté ‘from the Vaudeville, Paris’. Mdlle La Ferté appeared in a dress with a long train, and scribes said she was ‘very different to Finette’. I think that, apart from the Clodoches, England was being served up with a few second-rate and fake cancanners!

Right. This my not-a-history of the cancan. It’s an introduction, setting the scene for a wee bit of chat about some of the English-dancing world’s earliest and greatest performers in the genre. It was one of them who got me into this. Well, her husband, really. But the further I dug …

End of Part 1. 

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