Neo-Cabaret: Nothing shapes atmosphere like a live accordionist. The sound unfurling, a shadowed figure in the dark, in the smoke, with red stage lights cutting through in broken, soft shards across tables and cocktails and skulls waiting to be filled with the sound of a sultry singer, the sight of a dancer’s limbs. Nothing like a live pianist, violinist, or guitarist, for that matter. And there’s nothing less suitable to the high-kick splits or the heart-stopping aerial drop than a synthesized saxophone or a cd that skips.
This renaissance of Neo-Cabaret is an exciting time to be a performing artist. Young hipsters don’t want to sit alone in front of the television. They want to sip micro-brewed beer and craft cocktails and eat tiny servings of Southern comfort food while being entertained in an old-fashioned way. And then there are the not-so-bougie, secret soirees in artist communes or after-hours at the local circus school. There are no snacks, no cocktails, just performers and their peers, a collective of appreciative bodies. But why, then, are the musicians so often still machines? The amorphous entity of circus, aerial, burlesque, sideshow, music, dance, and other nocturnal theater arts, twisting together like limbs, I will, for the purpose of this article call, Neo-Cabaret.
In this sultry world, I’ve seen many shows performed to recordings. I understand it. It’s a nightmare to collaborate with a live band. The music arrangements, rehearsals, scheduling, compensation… it’s extra work. But it’s worth it.
Live musicians and real instruments are the most exciting, the most bracing and most authentic accoutrements for a performer. The cabaret, these days, is like the cocktail. There are cheap thrills: the Incredible Hulks and Cosmos… and then there are the Boothby Manhattans, the French 75s… the real deal and delicious. Beating-heart, breathing musicians with squeaking, creaking wood and cloth and steel beneath their fingers are truth scattered in the smoke and swaying to the rhythm.
We’ve made the transition back to live theater from the realm of the digital, or in cooperation with it. Real musicians are a reminiscent blast and a peek into the future. People are looking for something true, and so live theater, the cabaret, burlesque, and circus are enjoying a long and, with luck, permanent renaissance in the hearts of the amateur connoisseurs of the dark spaces where we spiral out our wares. Stop selling snake oil and offer your audience the real, live, fleshy thing. The atmosphere live musicians can create is unmatched. Sure, you have to pay them, and sometimes they miss a beat, but they never skip. And if you miss a beat, they’ll save your circling hide in the blink of an eye. Live musicians can make the steam stream over the top of the pot and to warm the hearts of your audience. Find them, pay them, love them, thank them, and keep them coming back.
Collaborating with local musicians will bring flexibility, flair, quality, authenticity, and magic to your performance. Try it. You can pick one instrument, your favorite… accordion, violin, piano. Find one player and meet with her weekly. Practice your routines together. Bring her to open gym at your aerial studio if you can. Find a local band you like. Choreograph a routine to their music and then book a show with them. Musicians, seek out burlesque and aerial venues and performers and open a dialogue. Find a basis for collaboration.
Let’s keep expanding live performance and the ethos of the cabaret. Let’s keep enlivening every aspect. Musicians are the ticket. You can get cheap sparkles that look real. You can get fringe for 50% off and stick it on an item from the discount store. Under the lights, you’ll look as expensive as though you’re encrusted in Swarovski crystals. But you can’t fake the music. Lights and smoke won’t hide your pre-recorded track. So cut corners where you have to, but spend time in the hands of a real band. Find venues with in-house bands, or make your own and travel with them. Charge more at the door and lavish your audience with the kind of velvet love you can only give with a real, live, bleeding band. You’re worth it. We’re worth it. The audience is worth it. The art deserves it.
– Guest post by Allie Jessing