by José Manuel Araque
The consequences of the French and the American Revolutions went far beyond politics and economics, cultural life and the Arts changed too. The World seemed slightly bigger back then, it took a ship two weeks to cover the distance from Buenos Ayres to New York, Barcelona, or Marseille. Paris became a huge destination when the fourth Exposition Universelle took place there on the Centennial of the Revolution, from May through October 1889. The Eiffel Tower was built as part of the Expo. Some countries still under monarchies boycotted the Expo, but it was a huge success nonetheless. Suddenly everyone wanted to go to Paris, not only to see the French, but to see other cultures, and to be seen. Paris became “full of people that were not French”, 32 million visitors came in the 6 months the Expo was open.
The Exposition Universelle was a significant cultural affair like no other the World had seen, it was a "spectacle to end all spectacles" [Fauser]. It showcased the achievements of the French Revolution, but it also acted as an enormous Encyclopedia of knowledge, and a huge display of products from all around the World. And it served as a turning point in the understanding and appreciation of Music. New technologies were demonstrated in the Galerie des Machines and other pavilions. Edison's cylinder phonograph was at the Expo (it was patented in 1880, but mass-production started in 1888), as well as Bell's telephone. People lined up for hours at times, to see and listen to these wonders. Edison himself visited the Expo in late August, he got a hero's welcome.
Since the late 18th Century, as attitudes changed, the nightclub was born, going out at night was democratized. The music-hall (or cafe-concert) blossomed too, a sort of small theater for the common man, unencumbered by the stodginess of the Classical tradition. The legendary Cafe des Ambassadeurs dates back to 1772. Other places followed, like the Alhambra in 1866, the Folies Bergère in 1869, and the Théâtre Marigny in 1883. And following the Expo, the Jardin de Paris, which later became the cabaret Moulin Rouge, opened in Montmartre. The Moulin became famous not only because of the creation of the can-can, but for the novel design that allowed for rapid changes to the décor and stage.
Yet another Exposition Universelle took place in Paris in 1900, and the incipient field of Motion Pictures was one of the technologies that was prominently showcased. At the turn of the Century, the Paris of the Belle Époque was probably the hottest destination on Earth, everything that happened in Paris set trends for other capitals to follow. The boom in the Arts was unequaled, and so was the proliferation of venues of leisure. But when La Belle Otero danced at the Marigny and others, it was the Andalusian Tango that was still front and center, and there was little or no Argentine Tango in Paris.
Séguin was highly ambitious, and moved up very quickly. Ten years later, he had investments in all sorts of enterprises, he was a developer, an industrialist, he ran "trusts", and he became fabulously wealthy. The source of Séguin's wealth is the stuff of legend and speculation, he seemed extremely adept at staying "behind the scenes". When Enrique Cadícamo wrote about Séguin in his "Historia del Tango en París" (History of Tango in Paris, 1975), he highlighted Séguin's ties to the Lombard brothers, who were said to be linked to the underworld in Marseille. Cadícamo suggested that the Lombards were linked to prostitution. These were still the days when a woman on stage, dressed in anything but "proper attire", was considered a moral transgression, and the Lombards were known to run places where spectacles "less than decorous" took place. The Casino de Paris itself became known as a place where these kind of performers were featured too.
It’s not known how Séguin came across the opportunity, but in early 1906 he entered in a partnership with Alphonse Rigod and Ernest Rottenbourg in Paris, and took controlling interest in 20 Rue de Clichy. Séguin returned to Buenos Ayres on March 17 of that year, and left Rigod and Rottenbourg to run with the plans.
But the pièce de résistance of the Apollo was the reversible floor, which was baptized as Le Basculo. The Basculo was the brainchild of Félix Léon Edoux, a friend of Gustave Eiffel known for his invention of hydraulic elevators. It was said to be around 278 square yards (232 square meters), and accommodated more than 300 seats. It weighed as much as 100 thousand kilos, and rotated on a horizontal axle driven by an electric motor, transforming the floor from theater into ballroom in a matter of minutes. For its construction, a large pit almost 30 feet deep (10 meters), had to be excavated on the site.
1. Andrée Magda, a French actress, went to Buenos Ayres in August 1905 to play at the Teatro Royal, and stayed for close to 14 months. When she returned to Paris in September 1906, a writer for the journal Fin de Siècle wrote a nice welcome-back piece mentioning her love of Tango, "the favorite dance of the peoples of Buenos-Ayres". Strictly speaking, this is the first mention of the Argentine dance in the French press that we could find, but Mme Magda apparently did not pursue her passion for Tango any further.
2. The first evidence of Argentine Tango dancing in Europe comes from Madrid, where in December 1906, Las Argentinas performed it at the Teatro Price. But again, there's no evidence they were in France, or where these two were from. And then they "disappeared" a couple of years later.
Chapter 2: Argentine Tango travels North
1. Annegret Fauser - Musical Encounters at the 1889 Paris World's Fairm - University of Rochester Press - 2005
2. Carlos Szwarcer - Teatro Maipo: 100 años de historia entre bambalinas - Corregidor - 2010
3. Tango Sacha
An incredible blog/resource, excellent writing, stories about Tango in France