WHY CABARET SUDDENLY IS COOL AGAIN
Just how has cabaret come back from the brink of extinction? Torben Brookman explains an unlikely renaissance
THE days of the red velvet curtains are gone. So are the fishnets and corsets. The ever-present emcee has been done away with, and the enduring image of the lounging crooner is something of an artistic anachronism. Cabaret, 130 years after it was born in the libertine social climes of fin-de siecle France at Le Chat Noir and Moulin Rouge, is rediscovering its origins and relevance; it is an art form amid a comprehensive redefinition.
As the song goes, “everything old is new again” — performers from Meow Meow and Eddie Perfect to Paul Capsis and Lady Rizo and Ali McGregor and Tommy Bradson are using the power of cabaret to explore new work, tell new stories and provoke and delight audiences.
Yet while it may be a genre breaking out of its old-fashioned image — and finding new performance platforms and audiences along the way — there remains a hard reality: financial rewards for performers are not huge.
Venues are small and ticket prices low; it is slim pickings for performers and presenters alike, yet the number of performers and audiences is growing. This year the Adelaide Cabaret Festival features more than 470 performers (including musicians); last year there were 420. Ticket sales figures grew 12 per cent in 2012 and a further 21 per cent last year to 38,877.
So why are more performers, producers and presenters taking up cabaret?
Simply, it is about the shared response between audiences and performers (and their backers) to the immediacy of the performance experience. There is no greater test as a performer than to stand on stage, with no fourth wall or a character to hide behind, and present intimate and highly personal material to an audience a metre away. Such interaction and proximity between audience and artist informs the performance in such a way that no two shows are alike. It provides the most honest artistic vehicle imaginable.
Cabaret was born in Paris in the late 19th century. Artists and intellectuals such as Guy de Maupassant, Claude Debussy and Erik Satie used it as a platform to gather and share ideas in front of a small, intimate audience. It was an organic, free-form experience in a safe environment. The idea caught on, and “cabaret clubs” soon began opening across Europe and the US.
While cabaret would retain its intrinsic intimacy, it would soon evolve into an art form synonymous with pushing societal boundaries. In Germany, after hedonistic, experimental origins in Munich, cabaret expanded in Berlin with the rise of Dadaism towards the end of the World War I, but it was the wave of liberalism, and the resulting removal of censorship laws in the 1920s, that allowed cabaret to truly flourish and provide the creative platform for influential artists such as Anita Berber, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil.
In the late 20s and early 30s, cabaret increasingly became a vehicle for political protest and commentary through parody and satire until the renowned “Weimar” cabaret was quashed with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party in 1933 (a period encapsulated in the musical Cabaret).
Supper clubs and piano bars sprung up in the US during the 1940s and 50s, featuring a far less controversial style of the art form. This wry, if sassy, new image of cabaret would become the launchpad for the careers of some of music’s legendary performers, from Eartha Kitt to Nina Simon and Peggy Lee.
It was the arrival of television in the 60s, and large-scale rock concerts, as well as the commercialisation of dramatic and musical theatre in the 70s and 80s that was the game changer for cabaret rooms. It meant a new competition for audiences. Stadium rock and the musical blockbuster had arrived. Bigger was better. Audiences wanted spectacle and there were plenty of shows to give it to them. Cabaret rooms languished and closed; only a small number around the world continued to operate.
At the turn of the millennium, cabaret had reached its lowest ebb. Attendances around the world were down, compounded by a lack of venues for performers to develop their craft.
It was into this landscape that Adelaide Cabaret Festival was born in 2001. Fourteen years on and the festival has, in perhaps an unlikely city, become the largest of its kind in the world, having also spawned the development of the Adelaide Cabaret Fringe and similar festivals in Melbourne, Ballarat, Noosa, Brisbane and Sydney. Last year, in a moment of inverse colonialism, a London Cabaret Festival was announced.
Adelaide, as a city, has helped redefine the notion of cabaret — of what it means — while retaining the emphasis on story and audience connection. As artist Eden Espinosa said in 2012: “It is rare these days to find a platform that affords the opportunity for artists to create, commune, and dream without the fear of judgment. The Adelaide audience is truly one of a kind, in that it is willing to experience new and sometimes eclectic art with open minds and open hearts. Your city has created something quite unique in the world.”
The South Australian capital provides the kind of safe haven for artists — local and international — to collaborate, explore and experiment with new work in a manner that would have made Maupassant, Debussy and Satie proud.
Cabaret in 2014 is thriving. Certainly ours is an age in which virtual experience and digital interaction is commonplace.
But you can’t download the drop of sweat that falls from a dancer’s forehead, the guffaw of a fellow patron, or the nuance of expression — the intake and release of breath — of the dance that takes place between performer and audience. Cabaret, remains, as it began, that rarest of art forms: a two-way conversation.
Torben Brookman is producer at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and executive producer at Ambassador Theatre Group Asia Pacific.
Marlene Dietrich as a cabaret singer in the 1930 film The Blue Angel, above left; a poster for
Le Chat Noir; and cabaret star