Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Nice work?

"Yes, you can have your 15% - just call off the strike, please!"

In today's Europe-wide climate of austerity, it seems unthinkable that a group of workers could strike for a 15% pay rise and get it within two days. What vital part do they play, these people? Have they a stranglehold on some essential issue of national security or economic stability?

Well, no, not exactly; the strikers in question are the dancers of the Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris, famous for its nude shows and regarded by the French as a kind of cultural institution, the subject of numerous backstage documentaries and guest appearances on national television.

While all the acts on televised variety shows are applauded with unaccountable enthusiasm by the audience, the occasional appearances of the girls from 'Le Crazy' are greeted with a kind of awed veneration, which is odd, when you come to think of it. After all, the act essentially consists of a set of nearly nude women in matching wigs striking poses to music under some very clever stage lighting.

Despite the US news sites referring to them as 'exotic dancers', their 'Plus Grand Cabaret du Monde'* performances are regularly broadcast for family viewing, largely because, though aesthetically pleasing, they bring to mind Kingsley Amis' description of a nude revue - 'as exciting as looking up the word 'naked' in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary'.

The Crazy Horse has always been seen as the 'artistic' counterpart of the more exuberant Moulin Rouge or the Las Vegas-influenced Lido, providing tits sans feathers for a more discerning clientele. While the Moulin Rouge routines evolved from the frenetic high kicks of the public dance-hall where ladies of dubious virtue strutted their stuff - there's a fine description in Zola's 'L'Assomoir' (recently the subject of a post by A K Haart)- the Crazy Horse opened in the early 1950s with a distinctly modern orientation.

Modern for the 1950s, that is. In today's internet age, images of naked six-foot amazons are so widely available that few would consider it worth forking out Parisian night-club prices purely to see the real thing. What attracts customers now is a reputation among tourists - and more than a touch of patriotic sentiment.

The appeal must still be there; the haste with which the management rushed to settle suggests that the 2,000 euros each a month it payed its dancers for a six day week was a small share of the takings. No dancers - no show; a simple equation that was enough to force a capitulation after two nights. And so national pride is salvaged and the Show Goes On.

The Crazy Horse - now so tame that its shows are performed before a family audience - has become a Sacred Cow.

*While Variety has more or less bitten the dust in Britain, replaced by the horrors of 'Strictly X-Factor Find Me A Talented Nancy Boy on Ice', it is alive and well on French television in the guise of 'Le Plus Grand Cabaret du Monde'. Now it its 13th season, this show features a variety of cabaret acts, some impressive, some cheesy and some downright bizarre (my all-time favourite has to be a contortionist hanging from a high trapeze and singing 'Makin' Whoopee' while hooking her left foot around her right ear, though the stripping German punk unicyclists on a tightrope run her a close second).

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