Video: Moulin Rouge dancers audition in Leeds

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It is one of the most famous shows in the world - and the artistic director who makes it all happen learned her craft in Leeds. Jayne Dawson meets the top woman at the Moulin Rouge.

I am huddled in a corner trying to keep out of the way of the legs. Everywhere there are legs, and in places you wouldn’t normally expect. They are swishing in huge arcs over my head, they are being held against their owners’ ears, they are disappearing behind their backs.

Auditions for Moulin Rouge, at Yorkshire Dance, Leeds. Picture by Simon Hulme

Auditions for Moulin Rouge, at Yorkshire Dance, Leeds. Picture by Simon Hulme

The legs, the leotards, the fishnets...it’s a heady mix, but it’s okay, I am in a dance studio.

It’s in the Yorkshire Dance Centre in Leeds, so the leggy people are from Yorkshire, but they are auditioning for a job in Paris, at the Moulin Rouge no less.

It is work that would catapult them onto one of the most famous stages in the world and pay them around £36,000 a year. And since most of these hopefuls appear to be teenagers, that is a salary worth having. No wonder they are limbering up with intent.

Opposite me is Janet Pharoah, the woman who will decide whether these dancers - around 70 of them are filling every little bit of the room with their limbs - are right for the Moulin Rouge, the legendary Paris nightclub that stages a nightly show of heart-stopping glamour.

She herself was one of these dancers and lived a life of feathers, sequins, and high kicks for an amazing 17 years before she put her clothes back on lived a life of feathers, sequins, and high kicks for an amazing 17 years before she put her clothes back on - she was one of the toples dancers - and moved into a more senior role.

It’s an interesting life, made even more so because Janet got there via a little dance school on Churwell Hill in Leeds and, what’s more, she was a grammar school girl who gained A grades in her A-levels, which didn’t include French by the way but did include religious studies. But she says she was always rubbish at French.

It’s not really the background you expect for the Associate Artistic director of the Moulin Rouge, as she is now.

Janet, a tall and elegant 53-year-old these days, agrees.

“My careers teacher thought I was very strange when I said I was going to be a dancer, but I just loved it.

“My mum took me to Mullen School of Dance for classes, as many mums do with their girls. Most drop out when they reach the teenage stage, my sisters dropped out, but I didn’t, I kept on going. “

It certainly wasn’t a show business background. Janet’s mum was a receptionist, her dad worked at West Yorkshire Foundries, but Janet was just born to perform.

“I did ballet, tap, song and dance, speech and drama - everything. I went Monday, Wednesday, Friday and all day Saturday.”

Aged 17, Janet went to London to audition for the Bluebell Girls and was offered the job, but after an agony of indecision she turned it down to continue with her A-levels.

“Everyone said then that a dancer’s career was very short , that it was over by the age of 24, so I knew I might be missing out, but that was the decision I made.”

As it turned out though, Janet had not missed out. On the day of her last exam on a Tuesday in June 1977 she arrived home to a phone call: it was the Bluebell Girls dance company offering her a job - but only if she could be in Paris by Sunday. Janet said she could, and a career was born.

“They put me in a hotel with an Australian girl. I was surrounded by all these girls just like me, all tall, all wanting to dance.

“Suddenly people were not saying ‘who do you think you are’ to me.”

She was sent to work at the Scala nightclub in Barcelona and was an 18-year-old having the time of her life, but then an unexpected event sent her dancing career down a different path - the Scala was destroyed by bombers and all the dancers were put out of work.

“People felt sorry for us. They were giving us work to help us out, we were doing TV shows, singing as well as dancing. We had to learn quickly but it was fantastic experience.

“I had always loved performing, more than dancing really, so I loved it.”

Janet quickly established a reputation in the dance community and by the age of 20 she was in Monte Carlo working for the Moulin Rouge dance company.

But she wanted to go to Paris and by the age of 21, when her Leeds friends were emerging from university and teacher training college and as Margaret Thatcher was taking the UK down a very different path, Janet was indeed doing well for herself as a showgirl at the Moulin Rouge in the heart of Paris.

“I wasn’t the best dancer by any means but I was useful. I could do anything. I was one of the topless dancers but I could do the cancan if needed, I could work with the snakes that were part of the show , I could do the lot.”

In fact, so successful was she that Janet remained on stage every night for the next 16 years, only giving up at the age of 37 to take on a more backstage, managerial role.

“By then I was already a dance captain.They said I still looked good and wanted me to stay on stage and combine dancing with my other work, but I decided it was time to stop.”

So now Janet lives in Paris with her French partner - someone she met through work - and her 14- year-old son Jason, born after she gave up dancing.

She says that, these days, she is a pretty good French speaker: “I’ve still got an accent though.”

But with her mum still living in Leeds and one of her sisters living in Selby, Janet does not think of herself as a Parisian, even though she is in the process of buying a house there.

“I like Leeds, it changes every time I come back but I like to audition here when I can.”

Her job is a big one, involving coming up with creative ideas for the shows, and business ideas to make it all commercially viable. She says these days it is as much about French employment law as it is about sequins and feathers, plus she has to be an ambassador for the company.

Janet also travels a lot and holds auditions across the world. This year she has auditioned hopefuls in Paris and London as well as Leeds and will soon be moving on to Australia.

She rarely employs a dancer immediately from one of these auditions but will keep the details of the best, contacting them as a suitable vacancy arises.

“I probably take on one or two people out of every hundred that I see. The standard is high, they have to dance well, to look good and have attractive faces. And they must be able to follow choreography instructions.The dancers in Leeds are lovely, and there are more at every audition we hold.”

“I like coming back here but, basically, I live in the world of the Moulin Rouge now.”