June 2021

Honouring the spirit of cabaret

By Richard Betts


Cabaret has an edge to it. In 1890s France it was sassy and sexy; in 1930s Germany it was sleazy and salacious. Auckland Live’s seventh Cabaret Season seeks to honour that spirit, while acknowledging that it’s taking place in 2020s Aotearoa. It’s all part of keeping cabaret relevant.

“Cabaret’s continually evolving,” says Auckland Live’s Janelle Bish, who programmed this year’s season. “It changes with the mores and fashions of things, but I think at heart it’s a mirror to society.” 

That mirror, like the society it reflects – fin de siècle Paris, Weimar Berlin, pandemic-era Auckland – can be grimy. In the grand tradition of cabaret, this season has its share of licentiousness, such as dancer Hannah Tasker-Poland’s The Most Naked, or the what-it-says-on-the-tin Naked Girls Reading, for example. Is it skin for the sake of it or is there a point?

“There’s often a subversive or political element to it,” says Bish. “A reclamation of space or a conversation with the audience, but you can lean as far into that as you feel comfortable doing as an audience member.” 

Amanaki Prescott-Faletau, whose Fever: The Return of Ula promises to be a highlight of the season, hopes the audience will pick up some of her show’s underlying messages.

“We want people to feel empowered as well as hear us out.”

She expects people to have fun too, though. “No one likes to be preached to; it’s an entertaining way to reflect on society, to celebrate ourselves and our stories and have an audience enjoy that with us.”

Inevitably, Covid has had an effect on the Cabaret Season. Traditionally a mix of the best from New Zealand and around the world, this year only the ever-popular Tim Minchin, who’s able to float in on the trans-Tasman bubble, hails from overseas. 

However, Janelle Bish sees the border closure as an opportunity to showcase our own talent.

“We’ve had to programme locally but this is our biggest programme ever,” she says. “I feel we’re finally discovering what cabaret is and can be in Aotearoa, and the making of local content has been crucial in its evolution.”

To illustrate her point, Bish notes that Auckland Live is presenting 10 premieres this season. “We’re backing these artists and supporting them through a process.” 

Part of that commitment is simply providing somewhere for them to perform. That can be figurative or literal.

“There isn’t really a space for Pacific queer girls, so we want to bring that narrative into the city,” says Prescott-Faletau. “We usually do our shows in south Auckland, and we wanted to take a bit of that vibe into town.”

Prescott-Faletau’s vibe will be present at The Civic, the designated space for the whole season, and a perfect venue in which to celebrate cabaret and all it represents.

“It’s like a giant multi-story doll’s house,” says Janelle Bish. “It’s got secret rooms and passages and small spaces and big spaces and it’s this absurd, lush playground that everyone gets to move into for a month. It’ll be like a weird, misfit group of cabaret flatmates.”

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