The new schools of cabaret, burlesque, and vaudeville are breaking often shocking boundaries
Enter on to stage: The Clown. Be careful not to make eye contact, but also remember to be careful when you avoid it. There is a razor edge in cabaret – sometimes the fourth wall just isn’t there – and at any moment you as the audience member could find yourself a part of the action. Case in point, me – I am the clown. I tend towards full-body participation with my audience, which could mean a bit of lap sitting, some slight flirtation, who knows? I might even lick you if I decide I like you.
I produce a show called Blunderland. We’re based at the Brooklyn nightclub House Of Yes and over the past few years we’ve taken up residencies in both New Orleans and London. Blunderland is a sexy and confusing mash-up of vintage and contemporary entertainments seen through a psychedelic lens. We are Alice falling down the Rabbit Hole in search of wonder. It is a show where anything could happen – one minute, a world-class circus that makes you doubt gravity (Olivia Porter), followed by political striptease (Darlinda Just Darlinda), followed by the most adorable and wholesome fisting act you’ve ever seen (Punchboy and Makita Spins) and yes I just said adorable wholesome fisting.
While the word ‘cabaret’ may evoke some sort of Weimar era or vintage speakeasy aesthetic, the performers of Neo Cabaret are very much au courant, and in the glow of glittering disco lights, taboos are erased and ideas are challenged. Cabaret, along with drag, burlesque, circus, clowning, and all other possible bedfellow forms of performance, are indeed quite vital and contemporary.
What happens on a cabaret stage is often a good example of the temperature of the world outside. Performed in intimate spaces in front of audiences who are often three sheets to the wind, there is a tendency for these shows to get deeply personal. The politics, lives, and stories of the performers are worn as extravagantly as their sequined gowns and oversized eyelashes. Tigger, a quite outstanding burlesque performer, once said, “If you’re gonna shove something down someone’s throat, laughter is a great way to get them to open up!”. There is a delicacy though – even in the most aggressive performances – in reaching deep places with our audiences. Running a cabaret show over the past decade I have found that joy is fortifying, confrontation can soften, physical prowess can give flexibility to the heart, and there can be true intimacy in the most outlandish spectacle.
I’ve watched in awe as the burlesque queen Dirty Martini began a number dressed glamorously and patriotically as the Lady Justice, joyously stripped to full nudity, and then filled her mouth with dollar bills while “I’m Proud to Be An American” blasted through the sound system. The background roar of existential crisis-filled belly laughs from the crowd was quite something to hear, as their minds wrapped around the exhilarating bump and grind of striptease emerging as a defiant act of feminist revolution.
Blunderland is a home for those whose revolution bumps and grinds and wears eyelashes, to those who move through the world upside down and 20 feet up in the air, and to those who want to subvert the usual with the extraordinary and glitter- covered. Our family – our international web of circus freaks, sideshow geeks, queens, and queers – keeps growing. Once an underground NYC event, we’ve found family everywhere along the way, from the basements of dive bars in New York, to Spiegel Tents on the banks of the Thames, to community halls in Icelandic fishing villages.
Surprising our audience is at the core of what we do, and the performers we work with are those we find the most brilliant, whose personalities are often more effervescent than the champagne they sip backstage. Weirdos, wonder-makers, wits, and the most wowtastic mavericks and misfits that we can convince to lay it all out on our stage become part of the sensory overload that serves the crowd. With every show, we learn new ways to delight and surprise, and new ways to use shock and sensuality to express ourselves. Always more, never less, more raw, more naked (emotionally and physically), more punk, more sublime, more whimsical, more sparkly, more surreal, more strange. As an art form, we have a rich history to live up to and this clown will do whatever it takes to make sure of that.
Eric Schmalenberger is a New York-based clown, and founder of burlesque troupe Blunderland. He is apparently a terribly good writer too. Who knew?
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