Sunday, June 22, 2014

What is cabaret?

Till now I've ignored the annual Adelaide Cabaret festival. I figured it was something beyond my sphere of enjoyment and would feature music that I have difficulty relating to - principally jazz. But this year I took the plunge and learned a great deal, and have seen some awesome shows. Cabaret it seems is an all embracing genre that does not have a set format. I thought there'd be a lot of singer standing by the piano singing type acts. There was some of this, but there was plenty else besides.

Wikipedia defines cabaret as "a form of entertainment featuring music, song, dance, recitation or drama. It is mainly distinguished by the performance venue (also called a cabaret), such as in a restaurant, pub, or nightclub with a stage for performances. The audience, often dining or drinking, does not typically dance but usually sits at tables." So it doesn't really matter what's happening on stage. As long as people are seated around tables it can be cabaret. It's the type of venue that matters, not what's happening on stage. I have seen funk, pop, rock, blues, jazz, comedy and burlesque this week, and most of it has been brilliant.

Something else which seems to be de rigeur for cabaret, based on what I've seen over the last two weeks, is that there must be significant interaction with the audience. This may be jokes or humour, narration of a story or context that pieces together the musical interludes, wandering among the tables singing to or having fun with people, or getting people to sing along. So it's not just about playing the music. More is expected. You have to be an entertainer. I saw one show which fell down in this regard. Musically the show was wonderful. It would have been perfect as just a concert. But in this case the performer's entertainment skills were week. In a couple of others the entertainment aspect was great, but I didn't like the music! Not to say that the music wasn't any good - I just didn't like it. In fact it must be said that the standard of musicianship was outstanding.

Every show featured a lead performer, and they typically had brought a pianist with them, who was often the musical director, or other key musician. The remainder of their musical ensemble was made up of local musicians who may have had just one or two rehearsals before going live. This made the standard of musical performances even more impressive, but also resulted in some shows where the local musicians seemed a little disengaged from the stage act. They didn't laugh at jokes, or even look at the star act between songs. They were only concerned with making sure they had the right page of the score ready for the next song. And this is a bit weird when the entertainer is being very funny or outrageous and the reaction from the support musicians is zilch!

I learned along the way that this semi-impromptu method of doing live shows is quite normal for cabaret. The main act is often imported from out of town, and has to go live with a band they barely know, and vice versa. So there is always an element of uncertainty about the quality of the show. And some performers switch from other forms of theatre when you have practised being in character, and rehearsed everything down to the last detail, over months in the lead up to a live show. So cabaret always has this edge of the unexpected and unrehearsed. This was sometimes evident on the technical side of things too. The technical crew are always local, and have had precious little time to rehearse lighting, audio cues and the like. It all sounds a little stressful, but probably contributes to cabaret being a dynamic genre that is always evolving. But it also assumes an extremely high level of professional skill where participating musicians and technical crews need to execute their skills with minimal preparation.

With my minimal exposure to cabaret thus far I'm not sure how applicable this is to cabaret in general, but there seems to be a leaning towards the risque. I saw several very suggestive performers, and one who was outright erotic. But it's an intriguing genre where sexual or other bohemian behaviour is showcased in quite subtle, classy fashion. It can occasionally be crude, but generally this kind of behaviour from the edge of acceptability was suggestive, or naughty, or implied. It was not explicit or cheap. As Sven Ratzke said, cabaret is about sex with class, and where you don't need to be naked with a wrecking ball to be sexy!

Sven Ratzke's show, Divas Diva's, is one of two I'd like to mention as the highlights of what I've seen these two past weeks. You can read my full review of it here, but it was camp, sexy, a little outrageous, funny, reflective and musically outstanding. The other was Rocket Man by Rod Davies. Again, the review here tells the fuller story, but this was a masterpiece of entertainment combining music and narrated stories of Rod's life journey through music. The man should be regarded, and maybe already is by some, as a national treasure.

So now I know a little about cabaret. I know it is classy, that the standard of music is exceptional, and that it can vary widely in format and style. Each new show brought a different way of being cabaret, and from an audience point of view this is quite exciting because you're not quite sure what to expect. But I'm sure of one thing, if it's on the Adelaide Cabaret Festival program it will be very good. I may not like it, but it will be very good.

(PS Thank you Catherine :) 

Lots more Cabaret Festival reviews at Adelaide's newest online arts magazine:

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