You could say it is history. Art, music, dance...a frenzied celebration of life itself -- yet this irrepressible spectacle came to me in a dream...a very, very surreal trip through my subconscious. And the song refuses to go quietly away. But first, what is this all about:
The cancan first appeared in the working-class ballrooms of Montparnasse in Paris in around 1830. It was a more lively version of the galop, a dance in quick 2/4 time, which often featured as the final figure in the quadrille. The cancan was, therefore, originally a dance for couples, who indulged in high kicks and other gestures with arms and legs. It is thought that they were influenced by the antics of a popular entertainer of the 1820s, Charles Mazurier, who was well known for his acrobatic performances, which included the grand écart or jump splits—later a popular feature of the cancan. At this time, and throughout most of the 19th century in France, the dance was also known as the chahut. Both words are French, cancan meaning "tittle-tattle" or "scandal", hence a scandalous dance, while chahut meant "noise" or "uproar." The dance did cause something of a scandal, and for a while, there were attempts to repress it. Occasionally people dancing the cancan were arrested but it was never officially banned, as is sometimes claimed. Throughout the 1830s, it was often groups of men, particularly students, who caused the most outrage by dancing the cancan at public dance-halls.
Ah, but the dream...
A bombed-out theatre...one wall missing, exposing a landscape of ruin draped in a cloak of black smoke. The smell of cordite in the stale air of another aftermath -- an image cast in the black and white starkness of a time worth forgetting. Some seats remain, occupied tonight by Hitler, Fat Goering and few lesser, though equally vicious SS men. To Hitler's left...two empty seats; the third occupied by a pouting little man: Napoleon Bonaparte, hand thrust down his pants, as if searching for some thing remembered, but lost.
On stage are the dancers, 24 in all, donned in petticoats and skirts, their faces painted with the grotesque false-smiles of a suicidal clown. To their left, the band...men in tattered and muddy tuxedos...clothes that seem to have been worn by bigger men. They all look like John Cleese tonight, but their eyes are empty, as if all life had scurried out the back of their heads. Above them stands a small man in a black military uniform. He has on small round glasses and holds two brass cymbals that dwarf his physical stature. He feigns some critical importance -- the leader of this orchestra, yet he only sees the backs of these men...or perhaps what used to be men.
There are many horns in this ensemble. Kettle and bass drums...accordions, lots of accordions and three great tubas. And quite abruptly, the small audience demands this show to start. And so it begins...
The cymbals crash and the short, familiar song begins...la, la, la la la, boom, boom, oompa, la, la, la, la la la....boom. The performance begins slowly, perhaps reluctantly, the feet light, the legs kick low...the arms like the wings of a long-crippled swan. But then the cadence seems to shift...sublimely, though quietly intent...as if a gentle thief had tip-toed into this darkened room to awaken the suffocated child trapped inside each of these reluctant dancers. Women denied, girls who never played...lives set aflame by the vulgar ambitions of the these morbid puppeteers in the front-row seats. Men who assume...yes assume. Much it would seem of late. And suddenly, the blood forces its way back into the bodies of these women, determined -- no, demanding to nourish anew: the muscle, sinew and bone necessary to carry this dance forward. To resist, to deny...to say, "No more..."
And like the sweeping sickness born by some invisible plague, the infection spreads. With each new stanza, the volume rises, the notes fly faster, the feet hit the ground harder. The stage begins to exhale the decades-old dust from the floorboards, milling around the dancer's heads in great, grey clouds -- the cymbals crash...boom! The band is on its feet; chairs and music stands kicked to the ground. The women stomp their feet -- so hard that Hitler bounces in his chair. A wry smile adorns Napoleon's lips. Sweat rolls down the face of the bandleader...he is losing control. Yet the dance goes on...la, la, la....la la la...boom! Fat Goering can no longer resist. He is on his feet, clumsily shaking his enormous belly and stamping his feet to the rhythm...up and down the row he goes...the Fuhrer looks furious...the band gets louder.
Behind the stage, elephants appear, moving their enormous heads back and forth to the cadence of the kettle drums. Monkeys fill the rafters, flamingos and storks take to the floor, wings outstretched, top hats in hand. A troupe of mice with banjos joins in and behind the dancers, horses with great feathery plumes on their headstalls join in the dance. And louder and louder the women's feet slam the ground. And now the musicians are on the move...doing a Cab Calloway number up and down the runway....and still these women dance on...in sheer joy, in love...in a mad celebration of a new and frightening kind of defiance. And all fear seems to vacate the room, the mortar and brick itself basking in the bright light of 'new management.'
Pigs fly, cows hum along...Hitler rocks back and forth in his chair, in the rhythm of tormented anguish...his bandleader has fallen off the stage. Yet, the musicians play on, for they know this song well now. Napoleon wears a broad smile...he has perhaps finally conquered something. So he stands, nods to the dancers and quietly walks out -- through the great hole in the wall; into the rubble of a sunlit day. On stage, color is creeping back into the room....subtly, like a spring flower about to experience that first summer. Blue, then bright white and finally a deep red. La, la la la....la, la, la...boom. And the dance goes on...
So, that was my night...whew! Must have been that Thai peanut sauce. Oh, Akroyd and Belushi were stage-right and the drummers were actually Maori warriors. And rumor has it that Stalin was in the back of the theatre drunk. Now if can just get this song out of head!