Culture

Not to shock, nor arouse, but to titillate

MAAMELTEIN: A relic of medieval town planning, Paris in the early 1800s was a warren of tiny streets and hugger-mugger buildings.

A gigantic bottleneck, the center of the city suffered from terrible congestion and provided a perfect Petri dish for disease.

Ascending the throne in 1852, Napoleon III determined to clean up the city’s act. He commissioned Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann to redesign the center as an orderly, spacious and sanitary grid.

Their radical project resulted in the Paris we know today, organized around a network of expansive boulevards lined with the homogenous facades of Second Empire architecture.

Located on the Avenue George V, an exemplar of the Haussmann style, the Crazy Horse cabaret occupies the site of 12 wine cellars that were knocked together in the early 1950s by Alain Bernardin.

Founder of the world-famous nude review, Bernardin might be thought of as the Haussmann of sexuality. His blueprint for erotica, still in force at the cabaret today, ignores all the idiosyncrasies and imperfections of desire, presenting punters with an indistinguishable array of plucked, pert female forms.

Andree Deissenberg, the no-nonsense blonde who currently manages the Crazy Horse, makes no bones about the rigid template of her establishment. “There are strict physical requirements,” she told journalists Tuesday, the start of the cabaret’s two-week residency at the Casino du Liban. “All the dancers are between 168 cm and 172 cm.”

Tattoos are strictly verboten, as are silicone implants. Breasts must be a happy medium – too large and they interfere with the cabaret’s aesthetic. Likewise, weight is strictly monitored, skinniness being as much of a firing offence as corpulence.

Such homogeneity extends into the choreographic style. Dancers hold their backs in a protracted arch for maximal jutting of breasts and bottom. Unless they’re wearing killer heels – the default costume – Crazy Horse dancers teeter on the tips of their toes.

Tuesday’s opening number, “God Save Our Bareskin,” made a meal of such uniformity. Arrayed shoulder-to-shoulder sporting a high-camp, bare-breasted take on the uniform of the Buckingham Palace guards, the dancers strutted in time wearing only bearskins and a tasseled thongs, their nipples all exactly aligned.

A Crazy Horse show comprises short nude dances interspersed with variety acts. Tuesday’s audience was treated to the shambolic, Tati-esque magic routines of Max le Riochet.

Augmenting the original Paris base, Crazy Horse has a permanent show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Now in their 60th year, the Crazy Horse cabaret is touring the world with “Forever Crazy,” a kind of greatest hits compendium from six decades of dancing in the buff.

“La lecon d’erotisme,” for example, features a dancer stripping off stockings and camisole as she writhes around on a couch shaped like a pair of lips, the original model of which was donated to Crazy Horse by Salvador Dali.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern stop of the “Forever Crazy” tour. In fact, with its reputation as the regional vice capital and lingering traces of French culture, Beirut might be thought an appropriate venue for Crazy Horse’s brand of stylized Gallic naughtiness.

Nonetheless, some concessions are made to local sensibilities.

Whereas the dancers get completely naked in Paris shows, they sported miniscule thongs Tuesday in a token gesture of modesty.

The Casino’s audience didn’t seem to mind either way. With at least as many women in the audience as men, the demographic seemed much the same as for any of the international spectaculars that play at the Casino. Only a handful of shocked spectators left at the beginning of the show.

That the audience of “Forever Crazy” is so different from the seedier clientele of Maameltein’s other strip joints is a testament to the position Crazy Horse holds as a linchpin of Paris’ tourist circuit, with all the respectability and glamor this confers.

It wasn’t always thus. Crazy Horse hit the doldrums in the mid-1990s when Bernardin – who maintained a hands-on role at his club until the end – shot himself through the head at the age of 78. By all accounts, the club began heading toward the seedier end of the spectrum.

After a decade of neglect, a Belgian media company bought the club and Deissenberg was headhunted from Cirque du Soleil. Choreographer Philippe Decoufle, who helmed the 2007 Rugby World Cup opening ceremony, was brought on board to revamp the company’s repertoire.

“Forever Crazy” deploys some of Decoufle’s newer material. “Crisis? What Crisis?” features a sexy secretary who, against a projected backdrop of figures and line graphs, peels off her blouse and pencil skirt to reveal – surprise! – a corset and stockings, which are shed in their turn.

Another recent creation, “Upside Down,” saw a pair of dancers poking various extremities above a mirrored plane, resembling many-limbed Hindu goddesses or else calling to mind the bizarre birthing sequences of Lady Gaga’s video clip for “Born This Way.”

In spite of such renovation, “Forever Crazy” is irredeemably stuck in the 1960s, the club’s halcyon days, immortalized by Peter O’Toole’s visit to the Crazy Horse in Clive Donner’s 1965 film “What’s New Pussycat?” Bernardin’s stylized aesthetic and the rictus grins of the performers seem to belong to that swinging era.

Even the compulsory stage names of the dancers – Diva Novita, Nooka Karamel and Psykko Tico, to name but a few – could have been taken from the pages of a James Bond novel.

The aim of “Forever Crazy” is not to shock, not even really to arouse, but to titillate.

In an age where advertisers and artists are ever more blatant in their use of sex as an attention-grabbing ploy, the antics of the Crazy Horse folk seem bizarrely innocent.

Nonetheless, the verve and wit of Tuesday’s performers made “Forever Crazy” a diverting spectacle.

Anachronistic it may be but, in lieu of a trip to Haussmann’s boulevards, “Forever Crazy” provides a distinctive dose of gay Paris.

“Forever Crazy” plays at the Casino du Liban until June 19. To book tickets, call Virgin Megastores on +961 999 666.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 09, 2011, on page 16.

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