It's Friday night at The Cabaret Sauvage and the crowd of twenty- and thirtysomethings is transfixed by a troupe of trapeze artists flying through the air. When the acrobatics end, four women clad in traditional Moroccan robes walk to the center of the stage. Before the rapt audience, B'Net Houriyat, a musical group from the Moroccan tribe of Houra, begins to sing haunting melodies that blend the desert's choral traditions with North African femininity. It's all in an evening's entertainment courtesy of "Les Folles Nuits Berbères"—The Crazy Berber Nights—at Paris's trendiest nightspot, where the old-time magic of cabaret comes to life with a new twist.
Nightlife is a cabaret all over the world these days. Clubs, festivals and small concert venues are hosting eclectic performances, often with a distinct international flavor, that are drawing not just old-school fans but introducing a whole new generation to the rich and sometimes risqu? musical genre. Last fall, New York's Carnegie Hall hosted the "Berlin in Lights" festival, which featured eight nights of German-style cabaret, and the Mabel Mercer Foundation's Cabaret Convention lured crowds to Lincoln Center. Last June, some 50,000 fans attended more than 200 performances during the 16-day Adelaide Cabaret Festival in Australia. This month American singer Michael Feinstein is launching a cabaret season at London's Shaw Theatre, where he will join Chita Rivera, Ute Lemper and other cabaret artists for performances throughout the spring. At the Jermyn Street theater across town, stars such as Julie Wilson and Jeff Harner will be performing in "The American Songbook in London" starting in February. And a new production of the 1998 Broadway revival of "Cabaret," directed by Sam Mendes, has been playing to sold-out crowds in Paris and Berlin. "Cabaret clubs come and go, but the genre will never go away," Feinstein says.
The new burst of popularity comes as no surprise to Mark McInnes, an Australia-born, London-based cabaret performer who goes by the stage name Dusty Limits. "It's a reaction to how overly produced, thoroughly edited and fundamentally contrived most popular entertainment is," he says. "We are so sick of the plastic iPod universe that we are forced to inhabit, we are excited to be in a room with a living breathing human being who is opening his heart and soul."
Translated literally from the French as "small room," cabaret is not easy to define. The genre was born in the 19th-century music halls of the bohemian Paris neighborhood Montmartre, where singers, dancers and jugglers entertained audiences in clubs like Le Chat Noir and Moulin Rouge. Historically, Parisian singing-and-burlesque shows were vastly different from the subversively decadent Weimar Berlin cabarets of the 1930s, which thrived after World War I with the rise of such talents as Marlene Dietrich and Trude Hesterberg to help heal the crippled country. American cabarets were less bawdy affairs aimed at wealthy patrons in New York and London who crowded into the Oak Room at the Algonquin or the Ritz in London to hear singers like Bobby Short and Julie Wilson sing Cole Porter and Noel Coward tunes. What they all had in common was a mix of music, theater and comedy—often with political undertones—performed in small, intimate settings.
The new cabarets have all that—and more. In Paris, Cabaret Sauvage has re-energized the genre by adding North African performers and traditions, with crowds of as many as 450 clamoring to get into the club, housed in a tentlike structure, each night. In Germany, cabaret shows are being performed in novel spaces, including art galleries and gymnasiums. At clubs like Berlin's Wintergarten Varieté and the ARGEkultur Gelände in Salzburg, audiences are thriving on performances by top cabaret artists like Matthias Deutschmann, whose satirical shows tackle subjects such as religion and war, the plight of East Germans and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "Cabaret has really taken off in Germany again, says Matthias Thiel of the German Cabaret Archives, a library-cum-museum based in Mainz devoted to the history of cabaret. "In the past, cabarets were very much only a part of big-city culture. Nowadays you're likely to stumble across cabaret theaters in even the most remote of German villages."
Perhaps no one has done more to spur this turn of events than the cabaret performers themselves. German star Ute Lemper, 43, will take her provocative "Angels Over Berlin and Paris" show, which?offers Weill and Brecht as well as a medley of Yiddish songs, home to Germany after her stint at the Shaw in London. "My mission is to move cabaret into a more contemporary sphere," says Lemper,?whose own songs address modern concerns like September 11 and nuclear tests in Nevada. McInnes, who came to London in the late 1990s, says the current global political climate suits the genre perfectly. "[Cabaret] is getting more ambitious," he says. "I would love to see more cabarets that are very satirical and critical of [politicians] because we are sleepwalking into another age of governments abusing their power with such impunity." And nothing combats geopolitical uncertainty better than a little singing and dancing.