Experience a French cabaret for Valentine’s Day

Chanteuse “Nikki Dee” will perform a selection of European cabaret songs with her band during Fête d’Amour.

Can-can dancers, good food, champagne and a smoky chanteuse are all that’s needed for this night of romance and love.

The Northwest Language Academy and Cultural Center in Langley turns its quaint homestyle bed-and-breakfast into a lively French cabaret for an evening. In a celebration of Valentine’s Day, the cultural center invites everyone to enjoy “Fête  d’Amour” with an elegant meal of French bistro style cuisine, complete with live musical entertainment and a cabaret-style dance show from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18.

The event will begin with a cocktail hour, featuring Kir aperitifs and a selection of amuses bouches, followed by a meal of traditional French cuisine, available with both meat and vegetarian options. Guests will enjoy France’s celebrated culinary fare in a warm, candlelit atmosphere, paired with a selection of regional French wines and, even better, a cabaret.

Center director Josette Hendrix said she is delighted by what has come out of the series of cultural events the center has held in the past year, which focus on different parts of the world and include conversation, food, drink and artistic festivities.

“This French cabaret event from the  beginning had everyone tapping into the creative passion of what truly happens when artists are working together — just as I’m imagining what happened in Paris during the time of the Belle Epoque,” Hendrix said.

“Cabarets spontaneously emerged because of the musicians, artists and intelligentsia being drawn together.”

Fête  d’Amour is inspired by the cabaret culture which began in 1881 in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris and its famed Le Chat Noir, an informal salon where poets, artists and composers shared ideas and tested new material. Later, more cabarets sprang up throughout the city and began to host scheduled performances of song, dance and sketch comedy, the most famous being Le Moulin Rouge, which still exists today in Paris.

The venues brought a new intimacy and informal spirit to entertainment, where audiences sat at small tables and enjoyed food and drink, while performers danced and sang all around them. Sometimes, the audience even became part of the show.

“I called Leslie Larch, who used to be one of our French students, and I found out that she had actually danced the Can Can in the Moulin Rouge in Paris in the ’80s,” Hendrix said.

Larch will lead a team of local dancers for Fête  d’Amour, a spontaneous gathering of local artists which Hendrix said is a true expression of what the French call the “je ne sais quoi” of typical French art and life.

Larch described what working life was like at the Moulin Rouge.

“The stage was packed at times, maybe 30 people,” she recalled.

“There was a narrow passerella (ramp) that literally butted up against the closest tables and the audience. They could have grabbed our feet if they wanted to,” Larch said.

Although working at the Moulin Rouge was not lucrative, Larch said she and her fellow dancers managed to eke out a living doing the two shows per night for three weeks at a time mainly for tourists.

“The theater was old, loos were a hole in the ground and we took a steep stairway from stage to dressing room probably 25 times a night,” she said.

But what she did take away from that experience — besides the custom-made dance shoes created for her exceptionally small feet by a French cobbler — were the dance steps.

Larch has choreographed a few, French cabaret-style short vignettes for a group of local dancers who volunteered their time to bring a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun to the festivities. Expect an energetic performance incorporating elements of dance, song, improv and a bit of comic relief.

Fête d’Amour is just one in a series the cultural center introduced recently, which explores cuisines and cultures from around the world, and the ways in which they maintain an unbroken relationship with traditions of the past.

The musical entertainment for the evening is chanteuse Nikki Decaires (Nikki Dee), a versatile, multi-lingual vocalist specializing in jazz, French cabaret and Brazilian Bossa Nova. With pianist Karin Kajita and bassist Max Wexler, Decaires will perform classic French cabaret-style songs and a variety of other selections ranging from soft, laid-back dinner music to swinging improvisational entertainment.

The singers and dancers will also be accompanied by local accordionist Peggy Moe, featuring a variety of classic French tunes.

An authentic French cabaret would not be possible without a bit of fine art to set the atmosphere.

“We are transforming the big room of the cultural center — it’s really an art installation,” Hendrix said.

Channeling the artist salons of Montmartre are two South Whidbey artists who will show their work in conjunction with the Fête d’Amour event. The paintings of Patrick Brennan and the pen-and-ink and collage work of Sam Hendrix will adorn the cabaret walls. The public is invited to an artists’ reception for the fine art show with refreshments from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. tonight during the regular Wednesday “Happy Hour” series.

Tickets for Fête d’Amour are $75 per person and are available for reservation at 360-321-2101 or by email at info@nwlanguageacademy.com.

A French cuisine cooking class before the Fête  d’Amour evening is from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday at the center.

Instructor chef Jacob Wiegner will demonstrate traditional French dishes with a focus on taste, simplicity and fresh seasonal ingredients. Wiegner was trained at the famous culinary arts school, Le Cordon Bleu, in Paris and previously worked under the tutelage of chef Philippe Thomelin at Olivar restaurant before opening Seattle’s Blackboard Bistro. The class fee is $45 or $100 for both the class and evening event.

Seating is limited and reservations are required.

To learn more about NWLA and upcoming programs or classes, visit www.nwlanguageacademy.com.