The Buzz, 2-20: Can-can attitude, can-do arabesque
La Goulue lifted her dress, La Taglioni her pointes, and both lifted women's rights
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak
If French women didn't get the right to vote until after World War II, this doesn't mean they placidly accepted male dominance. Agnes Giard, who writes the Les 400 Culs column for the French daily Liberation, notes a parallel between contemporary women who protest by mooning and the 19th century can-can dancers who made the reputation of the Moulin Rouge. "The most erotic dance in 19th century Europe, the dance which thousands of men rushed to Paris to see..., was originally an insult thrown in their face," Giard writes in a piece posted February 4. "In a study on the pin-up, the historian Camille Favre recalled that the can-can was identical with spitting in someone's face. 'Women on the barricades of the 1830 revolution would lift up their skirts in a supreme affront to the Royal Guard. From this street gesture, a popular dance was elaborated, and matured to become a choreography with precise steps: acrobatics, the quadrille (lifting one's foot in the hand while at the same time jumping in cadence on the other foot), grand opening, can-can (in which the robe and the skirt are lifted with two hands), chahut (or the art of lifting the leg). The (core) of the chahut was the removal of the hat of one of the spectators. With an adroit foot, the dancer would make (the man's) hat fly off.' From this metaphoric decapitation, the gentleman in question... would lose more than his high form; he would lose his dignity and his assurance..."
The most famous can-can dancer was La Goulue, immortalized in the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec. "She was one of those women who didn't need a cause to claim her independence," Giard points out. "One day the duke of Russia came to the Moulin Rouge. La Goulue removed his hat with an adroit kick (an incident recounted by the duke's grand-son on France Culture radio). The duke, furious, stood up indignantly, along with the entire Russian delegation, and started to leave. La Goulue then asked the orchestra to play the Russian anthem and the duke, calmed, returned to his place [along with his entourage]. At the end of the show, he visited La Goulue in her dressing room. 'You know, Madame, that in Russia, your conduct would be severely punished.' La Goulue responded, 'This is France, and j't'emmerde.'"
Giard argues that, despite deserving to be placed alongside Olympe de Gouges and the scientist Emile du Chatelet in the Pantheon of liberated women, La Goulue, who died "in misery, buried practically without witnesses," has never been considered other than a 'femme de mauvaise vie,' , a women who opened her legs before men. "This (empowering) gesture has remained marked by approbation." Perhaps, but just the same, in the Montmartre cemetery, while the grave thought to be that of Marie Taglioni (a Dance Insider / Italian Institute conference revealed in 2004 that, contrary to claims by French officials, the grave is in fact that of Taglioni's mother, the mother of pointe being buried at Pere Lachaise) is neglected and falling apart, that of La Goulue is decorated each week with fresh flowers, courtesy of the Moulin Rouge -- which understands how much it owes La Goulue.
If only the Paris Opera Ballet would manifest a similar fidelity to Taglioni. Outgoing dance director Brigitte Lefevre (she'll be succeeded in 2014 by Benjamin Millepied; if he remembers the company's rich classical heritage, things can only get better) did nothing to mark the April 23, 2004 bicentennial of the dancer to whom that company and all ballet owes the art in pointe in that evening's performance at the Palais Garnier, highlighted by the ballerina Agnes Letestut's ignobly flopping on the stage and splaying her legs wide under her tutu. Taglioni, also credited with introducing that ethereal garment to the ballet stage, must have been turning in her (real) grave. And while the school of the Paris Opera Ballet donated a plaque to properly identify the columbarium of the mother of modern dance, Isadora Duncan (also at Pere Lachaise), it has made no such gesture towards the dancer (and teacher) to whom it owes its modern character. You have to know that Taglioni is buried in the tomb of Gilbert des Voisins -- the estranged husband who once turned her away at the door because she refused to stop dancing (talk about an exemplar of women's liberation) -- to be able to find her. Unless it's late afternoon and the Sun is shining, you can't even read her name on the grave.