The Genteel
December 12, 2017
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Scene from "Cabaret", the iconic 1972 musical film. Source: jemsy14.wordpress.com.

Cabaret is an artistic playground draped by dark velvet curtains, smoky spotlights and late night libations. Emerging out of France's Belle Époque era at the turn of the 20th century, it was a time characterised by great optimism. Major technological advancements and scientific discoveries were spreading, leisure was being democratised and French society was beginning to let go of social rules and stepping over the old lines of class division. Artists, intellectuals, aristocrats and labourers all came together in a new rush of cultural exuberance and entrepreneurship.

Pianists Christopher Mokrzewski 
and Daniel Pesca perform music by Steve 
Reich, complemented by movements by
dancers Kate Franklin and Matjash
Mrozewski for Against the Grain Theatre.

Photo courtesy of Against the Grain Theatre.

The cabaret venue was an open invitation for self-expression and experimentation for both patron and performer. Singers, dancers, actors, musicians and clowns came to together on salon stages to share new artistic ideas and compositions. It was informal and intimate. Due to the close proximity of the performer to the audience, cabaret was a very personal experience that allowed for a deeper and more intense relationship. The performer could see every yawn, smirk and smile in the audience and the audience every bead of sweat, wrinkle of the nose and trick up the performer's sleeve. Challenging both parties to be more engaged, cabaret created an atmosphere of spontaneity, honesty and versatility.

Cabaret has evolved since the grand openings of Le Chat Noir and Moulin Rouge in Paris, but it still remains true to the purpose of its inception. In today's age, as information goes viral, globalisation is embraced and we are faced with constant economic uncertainty, we still need to feel connected and indulged in freedom and frivolity.  

Thankfully, through cabaret-inspired art forms found on modern stages, we can briefly escape our responsibilities and find solace in inspiration. In Toronto's vibrant performing arts scene, there are two bands of rogue arts makers taking on the spirit of cabaret. They offer a getaway from the stuffiness and high ticket prices of programs presented by large cultural institutions, "the establishment."  

Against the Grain Theatre (AtG)  is a collective of professional musicians, opera singers, actors, dancers, writers, arts administrators and visual artists. Many of them met at and continue to work together for the establishment but AtG is their platform for further artistic development; the kind one can't explore when restricted by red tape. Joel Ivany, founder and artistic director of AtG said, "For myself, I'm an opera director by trade and sometimes it's difficult to do my own work on such a large scale, plus you don't necessarily need all that extra stuff to make it effective and moving. With AtG, we have the opportunity to remove the barriers and make it more relevant to a modern audience."

In our contemporary culture we have so much competition for things to do so it really is necessary to create something unique and compelling enough that people are glad they didn't choose to stay home and watch Netflix or HBO.

Yearning for the intimacy of a cosy and connected performance space of the early Parisian cabaret bars, AtG shows their work in unconventional spaces and in unconventional ways. They recently presented two sold-out shows, in a lofty gallery, of Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins. Adorned with an exhibition of elegant nude portraits, the audience sipped on beer and wine as they sat on plastic garden chairs. Tailored vests and fitted denim replaced tuxedos for usual performance garb and silky bowed blouses and a-line skirts draped the women's curves. A collaboration of double pianos paired with contemporary dance, complemented by drama and song, enthralled the audience. With a riveting program of music by Steve Reich, Benjamin Britten and John Adams, the quality and thoughtfulness of the artistry, by definition, was true cabaret.

The social satire and moral humour of The Seven Deadly Sins were common cabaret themes, particularly of the burlesque genre. Fun and flirty, sexy and seductive, burlesque was a movement in sexual freedom and liberation that serviced adult fantasies and aimed to satisfy the desires of men and women. Pushing boundaries at a time when proper women went to great lengths to hide their physical forms under bustles, hoops and frills, burlesque challenged them to lift up their skirts, kick up their heels and speak up. The burlesque stage was a place to make whoopee (engage in uproarious merriment) and take a break from the seriousness of life.

The art of merriment does, however, require exquisite skill and charm, as is demonstrated by Les Coquettes, Toronto's premiere cabaret burlesque ensemble. Performing regularly in an old church-turned-bar/nightclub in the heart of the city, Les Coquettes have acquired a fervent following. "The troupe was inspired by the Moulin Rouge era in Paris, where it wasn't necessarily about striptease but about the profession of cabaret and the theatricality and variety of entertainment involved," says Catherine Skinner, co-founder and artistic director. "In our contemporary culture we have so much competition for things to do so it really is necessary to create something unique and compelling enough that people are glad they didn't choose to stay home and watch Netflix or HBO. Live performance should be electric, and meaningful. By drawing from our talented performers' creative pool, and encouraging them to create pieces that move them and turn them on, we are intimately connected to the show and therefore connecting intimately to our audience as well."

Les Coquettes is one of Toronto's
leading cabaret troupes.

Photo courtesy of Les Coquettes.

At the top of a recent show the mistress of ceremonies, La Minouche (played by Skinner), graciously instructed the audience, in a Marilyn Monroe kind of way, to check all inhibitions at the door. Playfully provocative yet artistically sensual, Les Coquettes performed smart and sexually charged numbers in pin-up couture alongside modern day edge; think lace and latex, corsets and pasties, feathers and leather. Every performer's strut and wink was carefully articulated as their feather boas delicately grazed patrons' shoulders. The women and men of Les Coquettes entertain with passion and exude pride in their art, sexuality, bodies, wit and intellect; models of strength and confidence with a little tongue-in-cheek.

Cabaret has shown amazing tenacity over the years and is anything but antiquated. Surviving oppression, war and finding its place amidst the noise of today's environment, it continues to seduce audiences. The freedom of cabaret is still a meaningful platform for accomplished artists to show off the mastery of their talents and commitment to old and new repertoire. What's the secret?  The magic is in the intimate storytelling and infinite imagination. Fred Ebb, the lyricist of Cabaret (the Broadway musical), once described it by saying, "It's about people dancing on the edge of a cliff and not quite falling over."  

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