Behind The Velvet Curtains Of Crazy Horse Paris
Before the legendary cabaret’s Forever Crazy show opens in Singapore this month, we take an intimate look at its artistic heritage at its home in Paris.
The balmy summer evening beckons a leisurely stroll along the tree-lined Champs-Elysées. We leave behind the majestic Arc de Triomphe in the sunset glow, and a short distance later, we arrive at our destination: 12 Avenue George V, home to the renowned cabaret Crazy Horse Paris—as it has been for the past 66 years—located just a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower.
Famous for its brand of “naked couture”, with classically trained dancers dressed in lights and projection, the revue attracts a diverse audience, both Parisians and visitors alike. But what I find surprising is the largely female audience—alongside the many loved-up couples—that fill the intimate 250-seat space on this particular evening.
Chief creative officer, Andrée Deissenberg, confirms this observation. “Crazy Horse attracts mainly women. In Paris, over 55 per cent are female guests. In the past few years, we have seen groups of women having a night out without men. These young professionals come here to have a great time for that hour and a half of escape, and the show speaks to them.”
Getting the stamp of approval from the very creatures that it has dedicated its art to—celebrating the female form of which its founder Alain Bernardin was a big admirer—speaks a lot about its artistic heritage. Singapore audiences will get to experience a lesson in seduction when the legendary Parisian cabaret brings its Forever Crazy tour to our shores from October 11 to 22, at the Mastercard Theatres in Marina Bay Sands.
Some may remember that in 2006, Crazy Horse opened a show in Singapore’s Clarke Quay, but it closed after a year due to a lacklustre reception. Much has changed at the Paris headquarters since then. That same year, its ownership changed hands and Deissenberg was brought in to provide a new creative direction.
Beyond the nudity, the artistry of Crazy Horse Paris is laid bare for all to see. We go behind the red velvet curtains for an intimate look at what goes into creating the legendary cabaret.
The Man, The Mind And The Spirit
“Alain Bernardin liked women. He was fascinated by their bodies, the way they behaved, and femininity in general. It wasn’t about sex; it was about seduction, about tease, about making the mind work. For him, imagination was everything. And he created an art form out of it,” Deissenberg explains.
The Aesthetic Codes
Inspired by the American burlesque genre, Bernardin founded Crazy Horse in 1951. Through the years, he developed his own artistic signature with acts presented in a series of tableaux, with classically trained dancers dressed primarily in lights, costumes made in-house, and with original choreography, sets, and the latest trends in music and fashion.
The Lights And Projection
You may see nudity right off the bat in the opening number, God Save Our Bareskin, a saucy military-inspired number choreographed by a British Army lieutenant, but it is as bold as it gets, as if telling you to leave your inhibitions at the door. Then, there are the stripteases seen only in silhouettes, where the female form is the canvas for the sensual projection of lights that leaves everyone wondering where the skin ends and the reflection begins.
“It’s not about nudity, it’s about femininity, and you’ll be surprised when you watch the show, because you can’t really see that the girls are naked. With the lights, it’s about suggestion, and not every number is about nudity—but every number is about sensuality and femininity,” says creative collaborator and choreographer Patricia Folly, who until recently was a dancer, or Crazy Girl as they are called, for the past 17 years.
The Crazy Girls
So what does it take to be a Crazy Girl? The selection criteria are strict and in line with Bernardin’s exacting requirements: dancers must be between 1.68m and 1.73m tall so they place nicely on the relatively small stage. Their leg length must be two-thirds the length of the torso, and the distance between their nipples measures 21cm apart. Only 20 dancers are accepted from the more than 500 unsolicited applications a year.
Deissenberg explains, “All the dancers that we hire are classical dancers because we want the pointy toes. We take two to three months where we do what I call the deconstruction of the classical dancer and reconstruction of the Crazy Girl. We teach her how to dance a la Crazy, a specific choreographic language that ensures the body looks beautiful when dancing.”
The Crazy Names
The transformation of a Crazy Girl is complete when the dancers are “baptised” and given a Crazy stage name prior to their first performance. Kika Revolver, Lava Stratosphere and Enny Gmatic (pictured above from left)—“The name takes into consideration the characteristics of the girl, her background, passion, hobbies, or the fact that she just laughs all the time,” enthuses Deissenberg.
The Guest Stars And The Guest Creators
In 2006, Deissenberg put art and creation back to the forefront, while still keeping to the aesthetic codes and principles set forth by Bernardin. She invited burlesque superstar Dita von Teese (pictured right on sofa) as the cabaret’s first guest star to stage a limited set of exclusive performances; shoe maestro Christian Louboutin was the first guest creator, and continues to design his famed red-soled shoes for the dancers (see The Red-Soled Shoes), with the latest collaborator being lingerie designer Chantal Thomass (pictured left on sofa).
Creative collaborations are not uncommon at Crazy Horse—its next-door neighbour Balenciaga was the first to design costumes for Bernardin, and other fashion designers such as Paco Rabanne, Jean Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Alaïa have followed suit. While collaborations such as these have elevated the aesthetics of the show, everything is kept tasteful and sophisticated.
Deissenberg explains, “Our costumes are all about enhancing the forms and the shapes, about putting an accent on the legs. We work with designers whom we learn from and who also learn from us because there are certain things that we have learnt from the past 66 years about what makes a women’s body look good, and what doesn’t.”
Fun fact: With the lights and projection are the main stars, each costume fits simply into a shoebox.
The Red-Soled Shoes
Just like the Crazy Horse founder Alain Bernardin, women are the biggest source of inspiration for Christian Louboutin, the man behind the famous red soles that many go gaga over. “I first started designing shoes with showgirls in mind. Being born in Paris, it was all about the cabaret and the cabaret girls. But apart from an internship at Folies Bergère when I was 17 years old, I’ve never done anything proper,” he tells us over the phone from the French capital.
But that internship at the Parisian cabaret helped open his eyes. “It was a great experience altogether, not necessarily around shoes, but it helped me really understand how important shoes are in expressing the body language on stage. It was a matter of illusion and how much they elongate the leg, so there are a lot of tricks needed to give the dancer a better posture and a beautiful body. Watching the girls at rehearsals was the first, but definitely the best experience. No one like showgirls can better express the power of high heels, or shoes in general.”
So it was “kind of a dream” when he was asked to become the first guest creator of the Crazy Horse. “Crazy Horse is Paris, it’s beauty and it’s fantasy,” says Louboutin. He devised four acts for a show called Feu in 2012, and some of these have been incorporated into the acts in the Forever Crazy tour where his masterpieces are central to acts such as Voodoo, Upside Down (pictured above), Rougir De Desir and Legmania (pictured below).
Can one really dance in five-inch heels? “Of course, especially if you are a dancer. All the girls at the Crazy Horse have been trained in classical ballet, so they go en pointe, which is no problem as a five-inch arch forms naturally. The girls would have a harder time on flat shoes than on really high heels,” explain Louboutin.
Of course, the considerations of creating shoes for the Crazy Girls are different. “I took into consideration the fact that it was a fantasy shoe that the girls are dancing in. The design fell into two categories: shoes that are going to be worn with the weight of the dancer on them, and shoes that are used for ‘posing’ such as pointing the feet in the air, without any weight on them.”
But this meant that he had to give up on his favourite “toe cleavage”. “I’ve always loved toe cleavage, it makes you legs look longer. But it’s a different thing in cabaret. I had to work with the illusion of a toe cleavage, without really having one because when the dancers point their feet, the shoes are going to come off.”
The Parisian Home
Housed in a former wine cellar of 12 conjoined caves, Crazy Horse’s home at 12 Avenue George V in Paris is “a place of joy, and a place of having fun”. This intimate venue and its relatively small stage that measures 6m wide, 3m deep and 2m high means that “we have to be very creative in the way we approach the creation of the show”, Deissenberg explains. “Everything is in the details. Everything is small and precise. I would liken the show at the Crazy Horse as being similar to Swiss watches—everything needs to fit perfectly for the mechanism to work, and for the images to be fabulous.”
The Forever Crazy Tour
A tribute to Bernardin, the touring show Forever Crazy, with a troupe of 10 dancers, features highlights from the Crazy Horse repertoire including timeless classics and contemporary creations, unlike anything that we have seen here before.
With this much attention to detail put into creating its craft, you can be sure that no expense is spared when it comes to staging the Forever Crazy tour in Singapore. For the first time ever, the Mastercard Theatres’ Grand Theatre will be transformed to include a cabaret-style VIP seating area, aptly called the Forever Lounge, so that audiences can enjoy a true Crazy Horse Paris experience.
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