Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #19/50: The Can-can by Jacques Offenbach

Editor’s note: Today’s post contains another one of those words that seems to have multiple spellings. I have seen the dance known as The Can-can spelled as I just did but also, Can-Can and, as well Cancan and cancan, The most common way seems to be Can-can so that is the spelling I am going with. Just so ya know. 🙂

German composer Jacques Offenbach.

Jacques Offenbach was a German composer who gained fame because of his creative work in France. Offenbach was known for writing operettas, most of which were comedic and dealt with the ruling aristocracy in France. At the time of his fame, he often directed his humour at the Emperor Napoleon. While Offenbach targeted the ruling class in many well-received plays, there was one that stood out from among the rest. It was an operetta called, Orphee aux enfers or, in English, Orpheus in the Underworld. This operetta was a take on the famous legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. In Offenbach’s take on the classic tale, Orpheus and Eurydice are a married couple who no longer like each other and wish to be apart. Orpheus discusses his frustrations with Pluto, God of the Underworld (who happens to fancy Eurydice). The two agree on a plan in which Eurydice will be bitten by snakes that Orpheus will release. When that happens, Pluto will rise up and take Eurydice to his domain in the Underworld. It will be a win-win for them both. Unfortunately for Orphues, he is not allowed to enjoy his freedom. He is plagued by a Greek chorus-like character aptly named “Public Opinion” who berates and badgers Orpheus to the point where he agrees to go into Hell to get his wife back. While in the Underworld, Orpheus witnesses the God and Goddesses behaving badly, which many took to be a reference to Napoleon and his court. In any case, as the finale of the operetta was being reached, a scene unfolds at a banquet for the Gods in which a new dance is debuted. It was a raucous, joyous, energy-filled affair that was received by audiences with rapturous applause. That dance was called the Galop infernal or as it became known, The Can-can.

Jane Avril. 1893.

In Offenbach’s operetta, The Can-can was a group dance for couples. Like all trendsetting cultural situations such as this, The Can-can became popular outside of the parameters of the play. It began to be performed in night clubs all over Paris. At first, this dance remained a couples-only dance in which four couples would perform it together in a circle facing inward, then outward and then, expanding out into a straight line. As the popularity of the dance continued to climb, certain dancers became experts in the performance of it. Initially, those who excelled were all men. The Can-can became known as an athletic dance best performed by strong, supple males. However, it was soon copied by females. These females knew that they could not match the brute strength of the acrobatic male dancers but they knew that they had an advantage that the men couldn’t touch, and that was their sexuality. So, before anyone knew it, The Can-can became a sexy, sensual, scandalous dance in which the female dancers would wear crotchless and/or thong-like panties under their skirts. The high-kicking finale to the dance was quite revealing, if you know what I mean. Consequently, as it was in the beginning for the male dancers, the same trend happened for the females that saw certain dancers become famous for their Can-can routines. One of the most famous of them all was a woman named Jane Avril.

French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Avril danced in nightclubs all over Paris and became quite wealthy and famous because of her Can-can skills. In fact, she ended up being hired as the permanent headlining act at the most famous Parisian nightclub of them all…The Moulin Rouge. Avril’s time at The Moulin Rouge was immortalized by one of France’s most famous artists, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec created over 700 paintings before his death at age 37. Unfortunately for him, he had a physical affliction that caused his legs to be abnormally short. Because of the social stigma he encountered in life, Toulouse-Lautrec developed an addiction to alcohol and, as well, to prostitutes. Monsieur Toulouse-Lautrec was known for his willingness to pay money for the attention of females so he became a regular customer at nightclubs like The Moulin Rouge. Once inside, the young dancers would make much of him and, for a brief while, he would feel happy and would be able to forget about his disability. In gratitude, Toulouse-Lautrec approached the owners of The Moulin Rouge and offered to create a series of professional poster-like paintings to promote the club. The owners accepted his offer. In the end, Toulouse-Lautrec created dozens of iconic Moulin Rouge posters, many of which feature a young dancer known as Jane Avril.

As has been the case with many composers of the classical era, Offenbach created hundreds of musical compositions of which he was very proud and for which audiences were generous with their applause. However, his Galop infernal became the musical creation that he is most famous for, whether he wanted it that way or not. It was said that Offenbach did not approve of the salacious manner in which The Can-can ended up being performed in venues like The Moulin Rouge but there was little he could do to stop the rise in interest once it became sexualized. While certainly not the first case of this sort, the evolution of The Can-can from how it was used in an operetta about Napoleon to how it ended up being marketed at The Moulin Rouge is one of the most famous examples of the advertising maxim that “sex sells”. Whether that should or should not be the way the world works is not up for debate because the marketing of healthy female bodies continues unabated a full century later. Whether it is a fashion runway, a “gentleman’s club”, an auto trade show or a venue like Radio City Music Hall in NYC (with The Rockettes), it isn’t difficult to find strong, healthy, attractive females moving about for money. Regardless of your view on this matter… you thank Mr. Offenbach for introducing his dance or do you curse him?…the fact remains that The Can-can is arguably one of the best known dance-oriented musical compositions ever created. For that, I think that Jacques Offenbach should be proud. It is not just anyone who can create something that ends up transcending time.

The link to the video for the composition, “The Can-can” by Jacques Offenbach can be found here.

The link to the official website for Jacques Offenbach can be found here.

The link to the official website for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec can be found here.

The link to the official website for Jane Avril can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Moulin Rouge Night club can be found here.

The link to the official website of the best classical music radio station….Classical 103.1….found in my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.

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