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‘Moulin Rouge’ gets to the pointe of can-can at Auditorium Theatre

'MoulRouge — The Ballet' by Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet. PICTURED: Eric Nipp AmandGreen. | PHOTO BY BRUCE MONK

"Moulin Rouge — The Ballet" by Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet. PICTURED: Eric Nipp and Amanda Green. | PHOTO BY BRUCE MONK

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When: Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m; Nov. 3 at 8 p.m.; Nov. 4 at 2 p.m.

Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress

Tickets: $30-$74

Phone: (800) 982-2787;

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Updated: December 1, 2012 6:24AM

Oh, to be in Paris in the late 19th century – the Belle Epoque– when the Eiffel Tower was being built, Toulouse-Lautrec was painting in Montmartre, and champagne was flowing at a newly opened cabaret called the Moulin Rouge (Red Mill), with its iconic red windmill on the roof and its scandalous can-can dancers on the stage.

The racy and romantic world of that club, which is still a popular tourist destination, and has been the subject of countless books, paintings and movies (by such masters as John Huston, Jean Renoir and, most recently, Baz Luhrmann), is now a work of dance theater. Choreographer Joden Morris’ “Moulin Rouge — The Ballet,” created in 2009 for Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet, will make its Chicago debut, Nov. 2-4 at the Auditorium Theatre.

Driving the story is the romance between Nathalie (the sparkling dancer who works as a laundress until she is singled out for a place onstage by Zidler, owner of the Moulin Rouge), and Matthew, the young artist who captures her heart, and also is befriended by Toulouse-Lautrec. Zidler’s obsession with Nathalie, and her attempt to escape with Matthew, results in tragedy.

“The ballet was created to help celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Winnipeg Ballet, which has the distinction of being the longest continuously operating ballet company in North America,” said Morris, a former principal dancer with the troupe, who turned his sights to choreography more than a decade ago. “I knew it would be difficult to get the rights from the Parisian family responsible for overseeing such things for the Moulin Rouge now,” said Morris. “But I sent them my script and storyboards — drawn from many sources, including a book by Pierre La Mure, and several of the films — and they finally gave me the okay.”

“One goal in the work was to keep the baseline in the classical ballet vocabulary. So it’s a hybrid. I had to find a way to have the can-can done in pointe shoes. But there also is a tango scene in which I use many of the moves of the true Argentinean tango, but also add some ballet lifts. I think the company, with its full roster of 26 dancers, really enjoys the versatility of styles. This is not just a ballet in tutus.”

Morris also had great fun with the absinthe-drinking scenes, where that highly alcoholic green-colored spirit — a drink popular among artists of the period, and often referred to as “la fee verte” (“the green fairy”) — becomes a strange muse for both Toulouse-Lautrec and Matthew.

“One of the things I think helped us get the rights was our choice of music,” said Morris. “We’re using the work of many of the French composers of the time — Debussy, Ravel, Massenet — as well as some Astor Piazzolla for the tango scene, and a bit of Edith Piaf for the opening.” (Though sometimes performed with live musical accompaniment, the Auditorium engagement will be danced to taped music.)

In preparation for the ballet, Morris traveled to Paris to get a first-hand look at the Moulin Rouge.

“The front of the house has been fixed up, but very little has been done to the backstage,” he said. “You can still see the very narrow hallway where the costumes are hung on pegs that go 30 feet up the wall, and where the wardrobe ladies retrieve them with long poles with hooks, just as it was done in the late 19th century. That’s where you really get the smell of old Paris.”

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