Life is a Cabaret: Choreographers' New Venue

July 31, 2007
In a Saturday evening last spring, Joe’s Pub filled with the sounds of convivial conversation. Patrons sitting around cramped tables swirled the ice in their cocktails. The lights grew dim and a spotlight shone down on a tiny stage catty-corner to the audience.   
One might expect a lounge singer or jazz quartet to emerge in such a setting, but on this night, choreographer David Parker burst onto the stage in top hat and coattails, tapping and singing an introduction to Dancemopolitan, a monthly cabaret-style dance performance presented by Dancenow/NYC. What followed were short excerpts of dance works ranging from hilarious to somber, animalistic to meditative.
“This is the greatest development,” says Parker about the emergence of this type of performance in New York—and in other cities like Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Seattle. Experimental by design, these performances allow choreographers to take risks, explore new idioms and, in some cases, have loads of fun. “It’s a release from the pressure of concert dance,” Parker says. “There’s an electricity in the air a audience responds right away.” 
The informal atmosphere and the eclectic, witty works tend to foster new dance audiences. “This is the kind of dance you can bring the boyfriend to,” says Katie Workum, a Brooklyn-based choreographer among the vanguard of performers exploring such formats. Workum co-hosts the monthly DanceOff with Terry Dean Bartlett (company member and associate artistic director of STREB), an evening enlivened by the spirit of competition. It’s a smorgasbord, complete with physical sketch comedy, musical interludes, and dance performance.
In the ultra-hip Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Elizabeth Streb’s company hosts their popular Slam Show in a warehouse cum studio. Here, audiences take in Streb’s pop-action, take-flight choreography up close. A typical night can find people seated on mats, eating popcorn, taking part in a raffle, or trying out some Streb choreography in “pop-action karaoke.” Bartlett finds the shows more relaxed and social. “It’s more laid back,” he says. “You can make dance with artistic credibility that’s also fun.”
In this hipster culture with its reverence for all things retro, the reemergence of neo-vaudevillian and cabaret-style dance makes some kind of sense. After all, the first forays into modern dance began in late 19th and early 20th century revues and variety shows that made room for Ruth St. Denis, Loïe Fuller, Isadora Duncan, and later, Martha Graham. David Parker, however, attributes the trend to the diminishing portion of funding for dance in New York. “You have to give audiences a reason to come together and something to go out for,” he says. 
Stacy Dawson Stearns, who performed with Big Dance Theatre and David Neumann in New York before moving to Los Angeles, has participated in several informal dance revues in L.A. “If a friend has a space to show work, he or she can invite other friends and it binds the community,” she says. Dawson Stearns likens the performance to the bargain rack at a clothing store. “You can find treasures,” she says. “It might be good or bad, but it’s always interesting.”
At Electric Lodge’s Max 10, where performers are given 10 minutes to strut their stuff, or CalArts’ REDCAT Local Laboratory, which presents Studio and the NOW (New Original Works) festival, local dancers can take risks. Presenting dance in this way, says Dawson Stearns, brings a “grit and life” to the dance world. On a given evening one can see “well-trained dancers, club dancers, cabaret performers for an evening that can be funny, shocking, dramatic, beautiful—anything.” She also feels that the cabaret format makes the performance less intimidating for the audience. “The audience can socialize,” she says. “They can meet a friend, grab a drink. It’s very free-flowing.” 
Perhaps the most underground and avant-garde of the neo-vaudevillian performances in southern California is Dr. Schüler’s Medicine Show. Performed at The Met Theater in Hollywood and El Cid, a flamenco venue and restaurant, the Medicine Show includes dance, theater, sketch comedy, music, and performance art. “I like the idea of a collage of work,” says curator Jason Schuler. “Something cacophonous.” Cold drinks and raffles are also part of the experience. “People like to see a show and walk away with something,” Schuler quips. But all joking aside, proceeds from the raffles have gone to Doctors Without Borders and Nihewan Foundation, a Native American scholarship fund. 
“Cabaret dance venues are alive and well in Minneapolis,” says Morgan Thorsen, a Minneapolis-based improviser. She has performed at the bi-monthly Patrick’s Cabaret as well as Leslie Balls’ BALLS, held at midnight at The Southern Theatre. “We can go for it—take risks, be crazy and experimental,” says Thorsen. Afterward, the audience and performers can gather and talk over late night pizza. 
Also in Minneapolis is Bryant Lake Bowl, a 1950s bowling alley that houses a theater with a 9′ x 22′ stage. Audiences can have drinks or dinner and take in performances at the Dance Lab, a monthly series for local choreographers. Artistic director Kristin Van Loon describes it as a place where audiences can watch dance, have a beer, and offer frank feedback. “It’s not your polite Q&A,” she says. “There is a live-ness to the audience and space, with waiters walking through and serving and taking orders.”
Nick Stuccio, producing director for the dance programming at Philadelphia’s annual summer Philly Fringe Festival, says, “Audiences want the informality and fun and different kind of performance that a cabaret can offer.” According to Stuccio, the Philly Fringe Festival, now in its ninth year, aims to blur the boundaries between work and play. “That’s why it’s held in the summer.” Stuccio reminisces about the time Headlong Dance Theater performed in a hotel pool with audience members seated in beach chairs.
Part of the Philly Fringe is the Fringe Cabaret, a nightly performance that begins at 11 p.m. Dancers, visual artists, sculptors, and actors can socialize and take in each other’s works—and a drink or two. “The artists are having fun,” says Stuccio. “But they are talking seriously about their works.”
In the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle, On the Boards, at the Behnke Center for Contemporary Performance, offers cutting edge performance in the 12 Minutes Max series. Curated by two local artists, this series presents 12-minute excerpts of work by performance artists, choreographers, and experimental theater artists. Cutting edge choreographers like Pat Graney and the group 33 Fainting Spells have shown work as part of this series. Sean Ryan, who coordinates 12 Minutes Max as well as the Northwest New Works Festival, describes the audiences as a mix of friends, family, and people who enjoy seeing what “new possibilities for performance are emerging in the Seattle area.”
It all sounds like a cozy way for a budding choreographer to show work. But take heed:  Cabaret-style shows, with their cramped quarters, aren’t for everyone. For audiences, the anything goes quality means they take the risk of having to tolerate some unpolished, undeveloped pieces while hoping for a diamond in the rough. For choreographers, the time limit makes it impossible to develop full-length works. Space, as well as time, is cramped, and choreography that extends into space doesn’t do well at Bryant Lake Bowl or Joe’s Pub. Plus, the chattering and sipping of the audience can be distracting.
But resourceful choreographers can turn a negative into a plus. “You need to connect that much more intensely with the audience and grab their attention faster,” suggests Parker.
What all of these venues have in common is a commitment to fostering new work. They provide artists with a space to test out ideas and an arena to gain exposure. Audiences benefit, too. As Ryan says, “They can feel like they’re seeing tomorrow’s innovators today.”
It’s that sense of casualness and intimacy that cultivates new dance patrons. “I didn’t know dance could be like this—it’s so fun,” says Wen-Yuan Chang, a new audience member seated in the crowd at Joe’s Pub for the May Dancemopolitan. She was not alone. Robin Staff, artistic director of Dancenow/NYC, says, with bemused delight, “Some of these people just came in off the street.”
As the evening at Joe’s Pub drew to a close, an adoring and satiated audience applauded the performers, who took bows in a mix-matched line of ragged and sequined costumes. A mic was passed for each to announce where they would be performing next. For the artists, their hope is that audiences not only come in off the street, but come to stay.

Vanessa Manko is the dance editor of
The Brooklyn Rail and an academic adviser for New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.