Cabaret: it’s The Cabaret Club on Brunswick Street. It’s a movie. It’s a tourist attraction in Paris. It translates from French into English as ‘wine cellar’. It’s an art form. It’s song, dance, music and comedy rolled into a floorshow in an intimate venue for adults. And it’s a festival in Brisbane.
Brisbane cabaret stands to create its own unique account of this multifaceted art form with its spectacular origins and colourful history. The landmark of Brisbane cabaret is best represented with The Tivoli Cabaret and Bar; an opulent art deco venue built in 1917 featuring one of Brisbane’s most incredible acoustic layouts and a rich lineup in entertainment from Frank Sinatra to Katy Perry.
However, one special setting that stands out in Brisbane’s history and is never to be forgotten is Cloudland Dance Hall. The distinctive 18 metre-high parabolic roof arch was built in 1940 atop Bowen Hills with a sprung dancefloor, hosting events from Buddy Holly to ballroom dances and Midnight Oil. Formerly the pride of Brisbane, Cloudland has been immortalised in Midnight Oil’s ‘Dreamworld’, a ballet choreographed for the 2004 Brisbane Festival, and in 2005 featured in ‘Foolish Things’; a stage show developed by local artists Leah Cotterall and Helen Russell depicting a nostalgic journey in Brisbane music.
As a style of entertainment, cabaret goes back to France, referencing in its translation the small rooms where the entertainment was born. In the 1880s, Le Chat Noir was established in the infamous entertainment district of Monmarte. It was a casual bar catering to poets, artists and composers for sharing ideas and testing material, with artists like Debussy and Satie frequenting the establishment. Over time, European cabaret would evolve into a supper club and floorshow, spreading to the States, Cuba and across to Australia.
The cabaret bought a casual spirit to public performances with bawdy humour, black comedy and salacious wit. Whatever was frowned upon by opera-loving spectators was certainly welcomed at Paris’ Moulin Rouge or Berlin’s Uberbretti. In The States, the speakeasy flourished in basements and backrooms, with bootleg hooch, saloon singers and plenty of whoopee the order of the evening. With life a harsh reality, satire, sentimental jazz love songs and transvestitism with whiskey and intellectual punch ruled.
Generally, cabaret clubs are intimate venues, jammed with tables and featuring a small stage with low lighting often obscured by cigarette smoke as part of the ambience. The music is mainly jazz and Broadway, with the more scandalous material left for later in the evening. To this day, cabaret clubs are the perfect place to impress and seduce.
Alison St Ledger, one of the leading faces of The Brisbane Cabaret Festival clarifies what cabaret is in Brisbane. “Cabaret is an experience,” she explains. “And it is an experience that depends upon the intimacy of the venue and the audience. The interaction between the audience and the performers is as important as the show itself.”
Indeed, venues are purpose-built for cabaret in their acoustics and staging with all the makings for a supper club featuring prominently in the setup. Local venues like The Manhattan Club and The Emporium Cocktail Bar will serve as accessible venues during the Brisbane Cabaret Festival, with Albion’s Stockholm Syndrome Café Bar and Showroom, Bowen Hill’s Stage Door Dinner Theatre, The Judith Wright Centre and East Brisbane’s Studio 37 selected specifically for their space to highlight the festival’s varied performances. And with a selection of acts from Tripod to The Kransky Sisters to Courtney Act and Women In Voice, Brisbane Cabaret Festival is sure to appeal to the naughty adults in us all.
No doubt the Brisbane cabaret community will continue to develop. “Cabaret,” Alison maintains, “is a kaleidoscope of various incarnations, and a postmodern, 21st century, up-for-anything art form.”
Brisbane Cabaret Festival Runs From Oct 25 — Nov 11.