WHY CABARET SUD­DENLY IS COOL AGAIN

Just how has cabaret come back from the brink of extinction? Tor­ben Brook­man ex­plains an un­likely re­nais­sance

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

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

Meow Meow

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