The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s “Moulin Rouge® the Ballet” is a potboiler, and a darned good one. I have no idea what its shelf life might be—it has only been around since 2009—but there’s no question that it’s a flashy crowd-pleaser with strong dancing throughout. This tale of young lovers thwarted by fate in Belle Époque Paris isn’t Great Art, but it was certainly engaging enough and the final tragic scene, set to the concluding pages of Ravel’s “Mother Goose” ballet, actually did choke me up a bit. But then, I get all misty at the opening bars of “La Vie En Rose”—which, as it happens, is the music that begins the show.
It’s Paris at the turn of the last century and the young artist Matthew has just arrived from the sticks. He’s quickly relieved of everything he owns by Gypsies but forgets all when he meets Nathalie, a launderette and aspiring dancer at the Moulin Rouge. The club’s owner Zidler (very loosely based on the real Charles Zidler, co-founder of the real Moulin Rouge in 1889) likes her style and hires her. Meanwhile Matthew gets into a painting duel with Toulouse-Lautrec, who befriends him and helps him pursue his budding romance with Nathalie.
Alas, Zidler soon becomes obsessed with Nathalie himself, with tragic results. His confrontation with Nathalie and Matthew in a tango bar—set to a pair of impassioned tangos by Astor Piazzolla—eventually leads to a violent confrontation at the Moulin Rouge that leaves Nathalie dead and both men bereft. It’s curtains for her and the curtain for the ballet.
Choreographer Jorden Morris uses a relatively small set of (mostly) classical ballet steps to tell the story, liberally spiced with some impressive tango moves in the second act. In fact, the dancing in “Moulin Rouge” would have been largely familiar to a ballet audience during the period in which the action takes place. It’s a nifty conceit, even if it does lend a degree of sameness to the first act.
It helps that the company has such strong dancers. When we saw “Moulin Rouge” at the Saturday matinee, Tristan Dobrowney and Amanda Green were a terrific Matthew and Nathalie—athletic, graceful, and invested in their characters. Amar Dhaliwal was a vigorous and menacing Zidler and Dmitri Dovgoselets a charming Toulouse-Lautrec.
Sarah Davey and Alanna McAdie had great star turns as La Goulue and Môme Fromage—both characters based on real Moulin Rouge dancers. With Serena Sandford, they made a sympathetic trio of “green fairies” who appear to Matthew after he over-imbibes in absinthe. The hallucinatory sequence is set to the melancholy “Adagio assai” from Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in G” and was a highlight of the second act.
The big ensemble scenes were the most popular, of course. The “Can-Can From Moulin Rouge” (set to the familiar Offenbach) drew a big round of applause and the extended tango scene that takes of much of the second act was very theatrically compelling.
The colorful costumes by Anne Armit and Shannon Lovelace contributed a lot to the polished look of the show, as did Pierre Lavoie’s lights and Andrew Beck’s Art Noveau sets. The program doesn’t say who was responsible for the music choices (although I’d have to assume Mr. Morris was heavily involved) but whoever it was gets a round of applause from me. I could have done without the saccharine arrangement of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” that accompanied the lovers’ pas de deux at the end of the first act, but otherwise the variety and quality of the pieces were impressive. I was very much taken with the use of most of Ibert’s witty “Divertissment” for the Act I rehearsal scene and can-can battle between Nathalie and La Goulue.
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s “Moulin Rouge® the Ballet” has moved on to other venues; for more information: rwb.org. The Dance essay writer St. Louis season continues with The Nashville Ballet’s production of Orff’s “Carmina Burana”, with UMSL's University Orchestra and University Singers, Bach Society of Saint Louis, and St. Louis Children's Choirs. Performances are February 21-24 at the Touhill Center. For more information: dancestlouis.org.