Crazy about Crazy Horse
Paris -- When my editor asked if I wanted to take photos at Crazy Horse, I didn’t hesitate. It’s not every day that you get an opportunity to go behind the scenes of Paris’s legendary strip cabaret.
It wasn’t my first time at the club. When I first arrived in Paris a few years ago, I used to work there, taking pictures of the spectators with their champagne glasses before the shows started. I would print the photos in a backroom during the first half of the performance and offer the shots for sale during intermission.
I often walked by backstage, but I’d never been to the cabaret’s holiest of holies, the dancers’ dressing rooms. And that’s what I wanted to capture during this assignment. Obviously the cabaret numbers themselves make for great photos. But I wanted to show the other side of the magic, to go behind the scenes.
Crazy Horse is a Paris institution. It first opened its doors in 1951, on Avenue George V in central Paris, not far from the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. Its founder, Alain Bernardin, bought old wine cellars at the site and operated a club in a Western motif (think red-checkered shirts and cowboy hats). He named it after a Native American chief. After a few years Bernardin remade the venue into a high-end strip club motif, which it has retained to this day. When Bernardin died in 1995 his three children ran the club for a decade before selling.
What struck me most about the backstage was how small it was. There are two rooms. One is for getting ready -- a table with room for three as well as individual cubby holes, with photos of family, friends and pets pinned to the curtains. Another is for relaxing -- it’s dominated by a huge half-moon couch where the women can lounge in between shows.
It takes a certain kind of woman to become a Crazy Horse dancer. For one, she has to fit a strict physical mold that not only dictates things like height, but also the distance between her nipples (no more than 21 centimeters).
The dancers were very welcoming. It wasn’t their first photo shoot, and they were very laid-back, spontaneous and full of life. There was only one who was hesitant, probably because she had only arrived from Russia a year ago and didn’t speak French very well.
They spent much of their time smiling and laughing, a feeling that I hope comes through in the photos.
The women are mostly French, with a smattering of foreigners. Each newcomer goes through a three-month training period, which includes classical ballet training, at the end of which she receives one of Crazy Horse’s stage names, like Martha Von Krupp, Dekka Dance, Enny Gmatic, Starlette O’Ara and Trauma Tease.
While they laugh and act silly in the dressing rooms, the dancers become are quite serious during the rehearsals, when they stand in a circle around a choreographer in workout clothes.
The stage director, Svetlana Konstantinova, is exacting and demands perfection from her charges. The Russian native helps facilitate communication with the dancers hailing from the same part of the world.
Iron discipline has been part of the cabaret since the beginning. There is a story that one night decades ago, two of the dancers went to a disco between shows. They didn’t pay attention to the time and missed their curtain call, sending Bernardin into a rage.
The dancers that I met loved working at the club because of the opportunities it offered for expression. “Because we do solos as well as joint numbers, we have a chance to work out separate personalities. That’s rare for a cabaret.”
Another told me that the stage offered her a mask of sorts. “I’m quite a prude -- I never go topless on a beach for example. But here, where I am enveloped by lights and shadows, I do easily. It’s never vulgar here, there is an enormous amount of artistic work that goes into every number. I put on my stage personality so it’s not me who is stripping.”
This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.