When I think about the oft-misunderstood art form of cabaret (which I very often do), I consider how in a way cabaret simultaneously embodies both the sublime and the ridiculous. The 2013 incarnation of the Melbourne Cabaret Festival presented an immense program of artists and shows, and encompassed these seemingly oppositional qualities with aplomb and relish. And just as well, for cabaret is an art form of contradictions, cultivating an immediate, direct and profoundly intimate relationship between performer and audience, but also establishing a sense of distance between them.
The cabaret artiste is distinguished as an almost otherworldly figure, enacting a heightened mode of being where reality is distorted, behaviours are exaggerated, and the pathos – be that tragic or humorous – seeps so strongly throughout every fibre of the performer’s being that it becomes an uncontainable and fervent energy which isolates and pinpoints the performer as removed from the audience and indeed from society. But it is this same energy which pervades every pore, every note, every inflection and every breath of the performer which gains momentum until it infects the audience and they too enter the ephemeral and transformative experience that is cabaret.
It is sometimes said that the audience too are performing a role; at the cabaret festival, this is certainly true. From the glamour and ostentation of the palpably excited Opening Gala audience at the Palais Theatre, to the quiet reverence of a crowded room hanging upon Tara Minton’s scintillating harp melody and bell-like vocal tones in the underground Paris Cat; the cackling playfulness of the raucous congregation gathered at Chapel off Chapel to worship the indefatigable Spanky and submit to the devilishly engaging Joey Arias, every audience helped to create and shape the intangible and ephemeral atmosphere of human connection so essential to cabaret.
The Melbourne audience for cabaret in all its forms is rapidly expanding – as evidenced by the growth of the festival in the four years since its inception – and it is perhaps that element of the human connection which lies at the heart of this increasing popularity. Is it any wonder in a society where increasingly our interactions are via various screens, and not from person to person? A cabaret show is a shared experience and an intimate encounter; expand this to encompass an entire festival, and the communality of the genre extends itself to the creation of a community. One of the great strengths of the Melbourne Cabaret Festival is in its almost organic evolution across four years from a small but dedicated niche group focused at the original South Melbourne home of The Butterfly Club into a diverse community across the entire city.
The archetypal image that usually epitomises popular conceptions of cabaret is that of the diva, an elite performer and formidable artiste, uncompromisingly demanding on her audience yet equally harsh on herself. But the diva creates a something incredibly awe inspiring, a magically sumptuous experience crafted with her stunning and resplendent talents.
Certainly the festival hosted some extraordinary divas: Mary Wilson, founding member of The Supremes, sang a moving and poignant tribute to the great Lena Horne; Yana Alana’s absurd eccentricity and powerhouse vocals steered her incredibly revealing show; and across the stages of The Butterfly Club, Kew Court House, Bohemia, the 86, Melbourne Recital Centre and many other glittering stages an endless array of sequined, feathered, and otherwise adorned divas of all kinds bewitched and enthralled, titillated and amused, and invited their audiences to experience new and exquisite worlds.
However, in the typical image of cabaret, the diva stands alone. For the star performers of the Melbourne Cabaret Festival, this is not the case. The art of the diva is dependent on the strengths of the community that surrounds her: the festival management and volunteers, the venue staff, and the endless masses of people working behind the scene to create the experience presented to you on stage.
But the vital player in creating this community – and in creating the cabaret itself – is the audience. It is their participatory and experiential contribution of energy, atmosphere and reception, and their direct and interactive relationships with performers that really create our festival. And that audience is you. Without you, the art of the diva becomes nothing more than a hollow artifice. The magic of the sublime and the ridiculous depends ultimately on you. Cabaret is an offer presented to you – answer the call. Cabaret happens not only in our brilliant festivals, but all year round, in so many venues, and even on our own university campus. Be brave. Journey out. Explore this special world. I’ll see you there.
Mama Alto Xx