Crazy horses

Ali Mahdavi discusses cabaret with Marjane Satrapi and channels the spirit of Eric von Stroheim for Ellen von Unwerth

 Vol 6iss 373

Phillipe Decouflé photographed by Richard Aujard 

Translation by Tom Ridgway

“I found my way in life with a nude girl, Miss Fortunia,” Alain Bernardin once said. “It was in undressing her one night after a gala that I understood the body of a woman would make my fortune.” So in 1951, he founded cabaret venue Crazy Horse, which quickly became a legend of the Parisian night. Bernardin’s vision of subtly erotic music-and-dance shows and his sense that cabaret was an art form in and of itself – one that should be inspired by other art forms as much as by its own tradition – have endured to the present day. Last year the club premiered a brand-new show called Désirs, created by internationally renowned choreographer Philippe Decouflé as director and Ali Mahdavi, a self-described “fashion designer, photographer, painter, installation and video artist” from Iran, as artistic director. Here Mahdavi discusses his longstanding love of Crazy Horse and its dancers with Marjane Satrapi, Paris’ other best-known Iranian émigré and the author of acclaimed graphic novel Persepolis. 

Ali Mahdavi: Crazy Horse is such a particular thing and can’t be compared to other cabarets or revue shows. It’s a language in and of itself, as complete and coherent as a Helmut Newton photograph, a Rothko painting or a Yves Saint Laurent collection. It’s a unique, incomparable thing. Crazy Horse is defined only by itself and if you’ve never seen it you won’t be able to understand it. It’s not just about seeing beautiful girls naked, even if they are sublime and naked; it’s not just about seeing a beautiful show with great lighting or the chance to experience an aesthetic pleasure; it’s also something extremely poignant. Nearly 15 years ago I first came to see the show and I was transfixed; I mean, I had goosebumps throughout the show. One number went by and it was incredible; it was sublime. One number was finished and I didn’t have the time to digest it before another started, which gave me a second slap across the chops, and that went on for an hour and a half. I left shaking. It hooked me and captivated me just like when I saw my first Hollywood films aged seven or eight. It was a moment when you recognise something in yourself that you haven’t managed to put your finger on and it expresses it much better than you can. At the time I was at the Beaux-Arts [art school in Paris] and art students can be really pretentious, they were all like Baudrillard this, Deleuze that. That’s all they talked about all day. 

Marjane Satrapi: Art students often want to study philosophy…
AM: Instead of creating art!

MS: If you want to study philosophy, then study philosophy and stop getting on our nerves!
AM: So I got back to the studio and said to the professor, “Have you been to Crazy Horse, Mr. Velickovic? Have you seen the show?” And I looked like a total idiot because it went against all the ideas and all the teaching at the Beaux-Arts. The professor said that he’d seen it about 10 years before and that it was exceptional.  

MS: That’s due to ignorance.
AM: Yes, it’s due to ignorance because everyone has a preconceived notion of what Crazy Horse is. I still see men who arrive laughing and think they’re going to see an amusing, frivolous show and they’re speechless, sitting there with their glass of Champagne, literally hypnotised. And that’s because of a number of things, including the beauty and the excellence of the dancers, girls who’ve been at the Opéra Garnier or the Mariinsky, and who have made a conscious decision to come here because they could be in other companies and have exceptional technique, as well as the genius of Alain Bernardin who integrated art, notably Pop Art, and a really dark side into the shows. What I really like about Bernardin is that he always had this obsession about linking eroticism and death. Cabarets generally are all, “Whoopee! Let’s throw glitter and be happy!” But he took eroticism to an extremely dark place, and then just at the moment when you’d find yourself feeling too oppressed he’d send out a really happy number. It was the most accomplished form of artistic expression that I’d ever seen and from that day onwards my dream was to be part of this adventure.  

MS: I’ve always been interested in that question of rhythm. It’s the same as when you’re doing a film. There’s humour, then the show gives you goosebumps, and then it goes off in another direction. It’s always about rhythm, but there’s also something about the girls. I went to see other cabarets and you could see the girls’ ribs sticking out; they’re all thin and you think, that doesn’t turn me on. The girls here have great bodies that challenge the laws of nature. You can’t have such a round behind that doesn’t sag!
AM: Crazy Horse is the temple of the behind; the obsession with breasts is really American. We don’t want fake tits here; they’re banned. Eroticism in France is about the behind. And these girls are top-class athletes. They’ve all had a classical training, most of them since childhood, which shapes the body, and they have a contractual obligation that means that if things aren’t right they get a warning and have to take themselves in hand. In the 15 years before Philippe Decouflé and I came here, who knows why but they’d asked the girls to lose weight. So the first thing we did when we got here was to ask the girls to put on some weight. I had to fire one girl because she was too skinny. Of course, all types of beauty are possible, but it depends on its function. When I work with a model I love it when she’s really skinny because she’s like a drawing, she’s graphic, and that works for a photo. But here we’re in a place where desire is supposed to transport you and that can’t happen without flesh. It’s just impossible.

MS: No one lusts after a coat hanger!
AM: I was really disturbed when I came here to work on the show. At a certain moment I was like, OK, I think I’ll go back to girls now. 

MS: What? You nearly became straight? 
AM: I nearly became straight again. With these girls it’s possible! They sometimes have such a level of beauty, a presence; they’re rare. I could talk about them for hours even if they’re the biggest pains in the arse on the planet. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. All the biggest stars I’ve worked with, whether Milla Jovovich or Kylie Minogue or Marilyn Manson, have never been such a pain in the arse as the girls here. If I had any hair I would have pulled it out by now. Firstly they test you; they want to see how far they can go, so every time you say do this, do that, they say, “I can’t!” They start whining, and if you shout at them they start crying immediately and you end up looking like a bastard. Whatever you do with these girls you’re wrong, but then every time you want to kill them, to strangle them, you see them on stage and you can’t do anything but adore them. But that’s their great strength: as much as you want to strangle them, they captivate you on stage because they’re not dancers, they’re artists. 

MS: What is your job exactly? Artistic director means what exactly?
AM: At the beginning Philippe Decouflé was chosen to create the new revue. And I was completely beside myself; I was jealous. 

MS: Because you wanted the job? 
AM: I’d been hanging around here like a loser for four years, but the problem was as ever that it was difficult to envisage how a fashion designer, photographer, painter, installation and video artist could also do Crazy Horse. Then one night Dita von Teese was a guest artist and we were watching the show and I said, “Your routines are too feathery and glittery; you’re in Paris now and you have to become Parisian.” We began talking and I found a way for her to do really sensual movements. The routine was a success and it was at that stage that they said, “Well, he’s a photographer but he’s perhaps capable of coming up with a routine.” 

Then Philippe presented a few of his routines and I was gutted because I didn’t want to acknowledge how really, really, really good he was, and I thought, “Fuck, the worst of it is that I know I couldn’t have done that myself.” But he also liked the routine I’d created for Dita. Philippe has always had total freedom in his work and wasn’t used to adapting to rules. He came with great ideas but here everyone tries to manipulate you, and at one point he couldn’t take it any longer and so he called me and said, “Listen, do you want to come and work with me?” I said yes. Coming from fashion and art, I’m really mistrustful and always think people are going to stab me in the back, but he was so kind and generous. He liked working in a team and sharing ideas. I arrived with ideas for routines, he had others, and he showed me his sketchbook and some of them were really good. So I designed some routines and he did things on his end and eventually our routines no longer existed separately. I can no longer tell who did what. 

MS: So if I understand correctly you create the choreography together, and you think about the costumes.
AM: And the routine’s concept. Absolutely everything. Together we created each routine from A to Z, as well as the show in its overall coherence and rhythm. We always agreed about the essential, even if we have completely different approaches. He’ll take the roundabout way and end up somewhere completely unexpected. I learned a lot working with him and for someone who likes power and controlling things it was a real change. I saw how much collaborating with an experienced, renowned artist with a touch of genius could also be really satisfying. It was a lesson in humility.

MS: Really? You received a lesson in humility?
AM: I thought it was impossible, but I managed it.
MS: Good God! What’s going on, Ali?
AM: It’s the magic of Crazy Horse! 

MS: Is the Crazy Horse girl in Las Vegas the American, breasts version? 
AM: Impossible. Whether in Paris or Las Vegas, or if tomorrow we open in Macau, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Islamabad, there will be no difference. Obviously, you know that my dream is to do a Crazy Horse in Tehran, not that that’s really going to happen yet. As long as I have a role at Crazy Horse I intend to respect Alain Bernardin’s will and everything he put in place. It’s funny because lots of the rules that I arrived with – rigour and so on – already existed under Bernardin but had been forgotten over time.

MS: What do you mean by rigour? 
AM: For example, that your hair has to be a certain way, that you can’t go out in public with your G-string showing, that you have to respect Crazy Horse because you have a indefinable chance to be part of this temple of beauty and seduction, that you have a mission to represent France and French excellence, the beauty of French women. You’re above all an actress: emotion isn’t going to be transmitted because you put a leg behind your head but because you have a look in your eyes that gives men hard-ons. I’m sorry but it’s important. The men have to be so excited that when they get home they make love like they’ve never made love before.  

MS: The girls are going to end up calling you Adolf Mahdavi.
AM: They already call me the dictator and it’s true I have a tendency to be aggressive and push the girls, but only because I see a potential in them that their arrogance stops them exploiting. They’re a generation that thinks the world owes them a favour so they have a tendency not to make an effort. Which is something I try to fight; it’s really difficult and they take it really badly, but I know it’s for their own good. The Crazy Horse is a school for women, for seduction, and once you’ve gone through it you’re not the same. What I want is that when they leave here they become the next great singer or actress, not to end up getting married and running a bed and breakfast. That idea drives me insane.  

MS: The last question that I wanted to ask you: what’s the perfect woman, physically? Firstly I’m really happy you don’t like G-strings because they’re completely vulgar.
AM: And they don’t make the most of the behind. They make a strange square shape.

MS: Absolutely! They’re disgusting.
AM: We’re against them. So, the perfect woman is the one who, with what God has given her, whether she’s beautiful or not beautiful, has the intelligence to make the most of her assets and go beyond them to the maximum to become an exceptional creature. More so because women have far more power than men to put themselves on show  their make-up, hairstyle and clothing means they can go much further. The perfect woman isn’t necessarily the most beautiful in the world but the one who, with what she’s got – her intelligence and the strength of character manages to transcend herself and become a magical creature.