BEHIND ITS UNASSUMING facade, Paradis Latin feels both as snug as a jewel box and as spacious as a cathedral. Red velvet hangings conceal a metal carcass that narrows toward the ceiling, creating an impression of infinite space. The theater, located a stone’s throw from Notre Dame, was designed by Gustave Eiffel, and its sublime proportions are reminiscent of his Tower. A few years ago, every major hotel and airport in Paris was dotted with colorful posters advertising this quintessential Parisian attraction, the world’s oldest cabaret theater. The posters featured a cancan dancer in a red feather headdress smiling beatifically over the raised ruffles of her skirt.
The dancer greeting the foreign visitors on the poster is a foreigner herself, and, at 40, she is the cabaret’s oldest serving troupe member. Kira has appeared on the stage of this art deco theater nearly every night for the past 19 years. On April 20 of this year, she took her last bow, marking the end of an era for her and for Paradis. Last August, in advance of her imminent departure, I tagged after Kira, hoping to get a peek into the clandestine life, both glamorous and squalid, of a Parisian cabaret dancer.
Underneath Paradis Latin’s shiny semicircular portico, two portly gentlemen take perfunctory looks into ladies’ purses — a tribute to the citywide security alert. All dancers are supposed to arrive at 8:30 in the evening, but Kira sashays in at nine, with only 30 minutes left for makeup, warmup, and wardrobe. In person, Kira isn’t conventionally pretty. Her face, so radiant on the photograph, is drawn with tiredness. With a stretch of her neck, she meets the cabaret’s height requirement, though only barely, and for that reason rarely graces the front line, called glamour, which requires a taller stature and fuller breasts. But she possesses two qualities essential to an artiste: intelligent charm, which she can turn on and off on demand, and the ability to transform with makeup. When Kira emerges from the dressing room after seven minutes of frantic face-painting, she is unrecognizable. Her pearly smile lifts her tired face, exposing playful dimples; her smoky makeup lends color to her pale eyes, while fake eyelashes and eyeliner make them enormous; a push-up bra creates the illusion of cleavage. Alone among the dancers, Kira makes eye contact with individual guests during the show, eliciting grateful smiles. She appears to be no older than her much younger colleagues.
After an equally slapdash warmup — the rehearsal room with mirrors and barre has been claimed by the owner for private karate lessons, and the dancers look for nooks and corners where they can hold on to the wall — comes the call, “Tout le monde dans la scene,” and the dancers stampede onto the stage, while Kira runs in the opposite direction, back to the dressing room, to throw on the first costume of the night.
By the time the program begins and the lights go out, the guests are mostly done with their preordered meal and are attacking bottles of champagne. The champagne, no doubt, helps them to appreciate the revue, Paradis à la Folies, which, without a buzz, might disappoint; it is a mishmash of recycled numbers, and not the best ones. The clown drags his feet; the male dancers look jaded; the girls are of varying heights and not especially attractive. The trademark look for a showgirl is a blonde with a small nose and full mouth — the Brigitte Bardot type, very rare for France — but most of the dancers here have aquiline noses and thin lips. Ironically, the closest to the show’s ideal is Kira, whose upturned Slavic nose looks coquettish and doll-like from the seats. The best number, the cancan, requires cartwheels that half the troupe are too weary to perform — Kira’s feet don’t even leave the floor. Everyone, and Kira more than the others, appears to be in need of a vacation.
But she doesn’t get a vacation — she gets a second job. After the show, Kira quickly replaces her extra-long eyelashes with shorter ones, more suitable for smaller spaces, slips out of Paradis as inconspicuously as possible, and marches over to Aux Trois Mailletz — a famous subterranean cabaret, located five blocks away in the heart of the Latin Quarter. Her subdued manner is due to the fact that after 19 years of faithful service — 16 of them on a coveted permanent contract — she and Paradis Latin are at odds, to put it mildly, and her only contact with the theater’s director, whom she used to address as “my second father,” now occurs via lawyers and certified mail. Kira’s dream is to leave Paradis with a substantial severance package — theoretically possible, but, in practice, hardly achievable. This slow-boiling conflict, plus Kira’s additional income, are the cause of unpleasantness and jealousy among the dancers, toxic for such a cramped environment.
Kira’s second job isn’t just a financial necessity, although it certainly is that, given that her €60-per-night salary at Paradis hasn’t changed in all her years at the theater. (Indeed, in terms of pay, too little has changed since hungry prostitutes performed the first cancan for pennies nearly two centuries ago.) To survive the physical toll of this work, a performer requires some degree of professional satisfaction, some sense of camaraderie, some connection with the audience — something to help her crawl out of bed the next day and return to the snake pit of the dressing room. Kira’s second job, which is just as poorly paid, helps her to survive the first, at least emotionally.
Until recently, the corner opposite Aux Trois Mailletz featured an authentic guillotine, a memento from the revolutionary days and part of a rival nightclub’s decor. Now it’s gone, along with the nightclub, to the Mailletz’s owner’s delight. Across the narrow street stands one of the oldest churches in Paris, Saint-Séverin, squat and ancient. Underneath it stretches a catacomb that houses the little cabaret. The aboveground part of the Mailletz is conventional enough: a cramped piano bar with rows of chairs under a canopy and a few mismatched tables inside. An upright piano in the back is circled at all times by mincing customers waiting to use the indescribably filthy bathrooms. A security guard doubles as a busboy, while a waiter serves as extra security; there is also a singer and a permanently positioned DEA agent. Downstairs, in the restaurant, is a different universe. There is a miniature bar, two kitchens, and a narrow room with low arched ceilings — originally a chapel, where criminals from the lower dungeon were dragged in for their last prayers. The room accommodates a small stage, a long common table strutting out like a runway, and a dozen tables along the roughhewn walls. The kitchen door bears a faded notice: “Performers are forbidden to pinch fruit!” — a response to an innocent tradition started years ago by Kira, who was famished after her performance at Paradis Latin.
The lower catacomb, officially used only by the personnel, is reachable by a spiral staircase of the most murderous design: no railings, slippery stone steps, and an extremely low ceiling that dips lower at unexpected places. The danger is enhanced by the rivulets of water that flow out of the faulty refrigerator. (Sometimes they are joined by leakage from the regularly clogged bathrooms.) Kira, who has to run up and down the steps in high heels all night, cheerfully lists the injuries she has sustained there. The steps lead to the dressing rooms: to the left, a doorless hole for women; to the right, former dungeon cells for men. The women’s dressing room is equipped with lockers, a tiny makeup table, two chairs, and a massive ash tray. Kira and the two singers, one African and one French, talk excitedly about the improvements made over the past 10 years. When they first came on, their dressing room had a cellophane drop ceiling to catch the leaking water, and, directly underneath it, a single bare light bulb. They used to wonder what would kill them first: flooding or electrocution. Complaining about work conditions didn’t help — whiners were fired mercilessly — so no one knows what induced the thrifty owner, M. Jacques, to introduce the life-saving changes. The local fauna, on the other hand, haven’t changed: rats and gigantic roaches with sharp teeth continue to proliferate. One such miniature crocodile crawled into Kira’s dance shoe and bit her during a performance; she didn’t know whether to faint or to scream, and was advised, coolly, that she didn’t need to worry about the infection unless “the little one” had been chewing on something HIV-infected.
Kira quickly exchanges kisses with the head waitress, who is also deputy director, the falsetto singer who was hired when the previous one got into a fistfight with the alto and several guests, and makes arrangements for her food and, more importantly, wine for the night. The house is two-thirds full — it’s August. The usual trio of tables — prostitutes, drug dealers, and narcos — is empty, and the feared M. Jacques is on vacation. The performers are wondering, sadly, whether they will get paid tonight. Kira makes her way downstairs to prepare mentally for the next six hours of work. In the owner’s absence, she can permit herself to skip a few numbers, but not to relax: the biggest curse of the catacomb is its thick limestone ceilings and walls that block sound — originally, the prisoners’ tortured screams. Kira’s ears have learned to identify the coming number from subtle vibrations, although sometimes she guesses wrong and has to scramble back to change costume after the song has already begun.
Over the course of the night, Kira makes 10 to 15 entrances with half a dozen costume changes. The numbers range from French to African to Israeli to Moroccan, depending on who is singing that night and what kind of special guests they have in the audience. Kira dances on the tiny stage, winding her way around the musicians, and on the common table, loudly tapping out the Russian standard “Kalinka” amid glasses and plates. On special nights — when the owner is watching, or the house is full, or the French Minister of Culture is in attendance — she makes an extra effort and performs her best numbers: the gypsy dance that features a spectacular back bend on the narrow table or the Russian dance with 180-degree leg swings over the guests’ heads. On regular nights, however, Kira keeps her performance minimal, being mindful of her torn ligaments and muscles. Around four in the morning, when the guests are beginning to leave, she dons her shiniest costume, sprinkles herself with gold powder, refreshes her makeup, and exerts her greatest effort of the night — to keep the party going. At full sparkle, she is irresistible, and when the guests return to their tables and continue to order, Kira gives a sigh of relief: her work is done. At half past five, having received her €120, she shuffles out, blinking at the pre-dawn light like a vampire, to wait for an overcrowded Uber pool.
At home, in a studio so small that she has to open the door in order to lean over the bathroom sink, Kira tries to calm her adrenaline-addled nerves and contemplate the coming change: life without dancing. The backstage intrigues, the roaches, the adoring audience, the costumes, the makeup, the injuries, the argot of the dressing room, being on stage every night — everything that made her life what it was for the past 25 years is about to end, slip into the past, and what this means Kira cannot yet fully comprehend. For now, however, it is more important to catch a few hours of fitful sleep, rest her aching body, gain enough strength to survive the next night and all the nights that remain.
Anna Friedrich is a teacher and literary translator. The most recent book in her translation, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.