Jane Avril: Endless String of Firecrackers

by Melinda Thomsen

Inspired by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s Jane Avril Dancing (1891-1892)

Henri hangs out in the corner drinking absinthe and sketching. Look at this sketch of me in lines. He throws lines down as fast as he tosses drinks down his throat. Remember the famous poster he did called La Goulue? Now his placards sell out my shows. This sketch shows me in the middle of the chassé with my skirts lifted backwards into a plume, as if I’m all sleek simplicity. The pastel cobalt of my blouse and my pantalettes fall faint against his cardboard drawing. Even the blank smudge for my face shows no time for thought; I’m all dance. As a runaway teen, I wound up in the hospital and was diagnosed with Sydenham’s chorea, so I love how the Can Can hides my tics and pays my rent. In French, Can Can means talking trash, but I prefer my own English translation of Can Can as ability squared.  I can sashay, twitch, and holler all evening for decent pay. Could you imagine me working in a factory?

Tonight, Henri has sketched me midstride, usually my legs extend like—oh, what do they call me now? Yes, La Mélinite because my routines sound like an endless string of firecrackers, left up, next right—up, down, to the front, to the back, shake the skirts, twirl the ankles, splits, and repeat—all night. Paul Leclerq once wrote I danced, gracefully, lightly, a little madly; a pale, skinny, thoroughbred, […] weightless, fed on flowers. Perhaps that’s why Henri and I are friends. We live like those feathered fascinators I clip to my head—odd adornments pinned to the world, but here in the Moulin Rouge we are at home within our earthly delights. Henri draws, ogles, and drinks Earthquakes for as long as he wants, and I can dance, twirl, and scream like a tornado all night.