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Monday, December 9, 2019

Holidays at BAM: Cabaret and Beyond

Note: BAM's new Artistic Director David Binder chose A Very Meow Meow Holiday Show to kick off an annual holiday block. Check out the seasonal photos after the jump from the BAM Hamm Archives.

Meow Meow. Photo: Magnus Hastings
By Sally Ollove
with contributions by John Jarboe

“What is cabaret?”

Thank you for asking! Cabaret is a musical by Kander and Ebb that once starred Liza Minnelli. It’s a kind of table. It’s a brand of cracker that 70s suburbanites served at key parties. It’s an indulgence, a secret, a cult, a radical experiment in community building, a trust exercise between performer and audience. An ephemeral queering of traditional performance modes. It’s an artform whose audience is living and getting younger.

Even as audiences get younger, the world around them seems to be collapsing. I used to think of cabaret as a place of beginnings, but more and more I see it as a place of endings or, really, of post-endings. Post-narrative, post-theatrical, post-pretension, post-perfection. At its most basic level, cabaret is a performer sitting metaphorically (or literally) in your lap sharing their virtuosity, vulnerability, and some laughs. Cabaret began on the site of the failed Paris Commune uprising and has a history of flourishing as people who don’t fit into the mainstream struggle: in post WWI Germany, in Harlem during the Renaissance, in Midtown during McCarthyism, and downtown post 9/11. As Brecht, a hanger-on of the Weimar cabaret scene, said: “In the dark times. Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” When everything else has fallen away, we’ll still be huddling around a piano with someone to help us laugh through tears and sing songs that touch us in deep and unknowable ways.

BAM holiday card featuring Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. Courtesy BAM Hamm Archives.
When things feel like they are ending, entertainment tends to fall into two categories: art about how we ended up here, or art that provides escape. Cabaret is art about the hard times that feels like escapism, sometimes to a clear societal benefit. For example, cabaret star Justin Vivian Bond create space where audiences feel seen. Bond uses their quick wit, charm, vulnerability, and prodigious voice to find moments of connection, most recently as “Your Auntie Glam,” casting themselves in the role of the benevolent family member everyone in their audience wants, and some desperately need.

Classic BAM holiday card. Courtesy BAM Hamm Archives.
As cabaret artists, we like to imagine ourselves using our wit to take down injustice or spur others to action. But cabaret is a tool that isn’t always used for good. Sometimes, the taming of darkness allows it to propagate. Jewish composers of the Weimar era so effectively satirized anti-Semitism with songs like “The Jews are to Blame for Everything” that it became impossible to tell if audiences were laughing at Nazis or their victims. And, of course, as Kander & Ebb point out, in the end, cabaret didn’t save anyone. What it offers is a safe space to explore dangerous ideas: what happens to those ideas depends entirely on what you do with them when you leave. If cabaret invites darkness in, where is the light? That comes from the radical sense of belonging that cabaret performers cultivate. Cabaret is a mode of performance but it’s also a kind of space: albeit small, imperfect, wedged into the corner of a restaurant or basement, usually with a bar. This space engenders an intimate performance that forces the artist into the audience’s space and generates a sense of controlled permissiveness. The best cabaret performers can carry that intimacy with them whether in the backroom of a bar or on the Harvey stage. 

A previous BAM holiday celebration: Judith Owen &
Harry Shearer's Christmas Without Tears
, 2015.
Courtesy BAM Hamm Archives.
Have you ever wanted to experiment with joining a cult? Cabaret can scratch that itch. A big difference between the benign worship of a cabaret star and the more dangerous worship of a rising dictator is the lack of permanence. A night is easier to experiment with than your eternal soul. And also—who gets to take up space? Cabaret stages these days are dominated by womxn and queer performers.

Meow Meow (in A Very Meow Meow Holiday Show, Harvey Theater at BAM Strong, Dec 12—14) identifies not as a cabaret artist, but as a post post-modern diva. When she demands help from her audience—usually men—with the air of a put-upon hostess who is making do with slightly disappointing dinner guests, she unapologetically commands the room in a way women are rarely allowed. We are there to serve her and the show and in doing so, we become an ad hoc community. We talk through her, and then we talk to each other (heaven forbid: actually talking with strangers!). In the outside world where leaders are almost always male and straight, cabaret gives us a glimpse at other options. In the Third Reich, Goebbels was so aware of the disruptive power of the host that he banned the use of emcees late in the 1930s, perhaps sensing that people might unconsciously make associations between the little cabaret dictators (who were frequently women and/or Jewish) and the big one heading the government. He effectively killed cabaret without ever banning it outright—once the emcee was gone, so was the appeal.

At a time of year filled with attempts to find light in the darkness, and rife with opportunities to celebrate idols from Santa to Mariah, many contemporary artists like Meow Meow embrace the holiday show. You can see the appeal: spend a night with chosen family instead of your actual family. Whether seeking an escape from December drear or Yuletide cheer, you can find it in this show which both sends up and engages earnestly with the trappings of traditional holiday fare. Surrender your will to your hostess for the evening, sip a cocktail or two, maybe make a new friend. And most of all, enjoy it while it lasts.

Sally Ollove is a freelance dramaturg who splits her time between Seattle where she lives and Philadelphia, where she is the Associate Artistic Director of the Bearded Ladies Cabaret.

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