Arson Nicki MCs her monthly alt-drag variety show Rapture: A Queer Avant Garde Extravaganza at Timbre Room. Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom

Cover Story

Dangerous Delight

Great cabaret is hard to define and impossible to forget. Seattle artists tap the form’s expansive intimacy and seductive, subversive power.

Cabaret is a shapeshifter. It happens anywhere—a dank bar or dark club, an improvised theatre or a luxe concert hall. As an audience member, you could be quietly listening from afar or chatting with the performer sitting in your lap or dancing with a stranger. Wherever you are, for that moment in time, that is cabaret: no fourth wall in sight, full of the electricity and inborn interactivity that most other live arts only dream of.

With great cabaret, it’s rarely the big moments I remember—it’s the aliveness of the details. It’s my half-eaten dinner, forgotten in front of me somewhere in the Belleville area of Paris, as an accordion player easily coaxed the whole restaurant into singing Edith Piaf. It’s Taylor Mac, one of America’s jaw-dropping, genre-expanding cabaret artists, slowly swaying in a fan’s embrace in the seats at On the Boards, his makeup sliding after hours of full-throated, full-throttle performance. It’s Ute Lemper, legendary interpreter of the Weill songbook, rehearsing “Padam Padam” in a Sheraton ballroom when I was in high school. The lyrics were nonsense to a monolingual American teenager but I melted into a corner to listen as long as possible, caught up in the melody’s swirling, plaintive repetition.

Arnaldo! Drag Chanteuse in full performance glam.
Arnaldo! Drag Chanteuse in full performance glam. Photo by Christabelle Binag-Granadosin

Cabaret was, is and always will be a phantasmagoria, evolving with its audience, speaking to us directly and becoming what we need it to be—a balm, a propellant, a communion. Since its birth in the rebellious political cafes of 19th century Paris, it has thrived in moments of political upheaval thanks to its unparalleled ability to connect perfomer with audience, and sneak subversive ideas into more conventional minds. It’s no surprise then that all kinds of cabaret are currently blooming in Seattle, if you know where to look.

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“This would make a great cabaret space,” says Arnaldo! Drag Chanteuse, eyeing the airy specs of KEXP’s coffee shop on the Seattle Center periphery. Arnaldo! is a seasoned performer and a devotee of what he calls “American-style cabaret,” an often subdued and elegant style perfected in the dim New York clubs of the 1940s and ’50s, and championed locally by the Pacific Northwest Cabaret Association, which Arnaldo! founded in 2006. Arnaldo! began his singing career with the Seattle Men’s Chorus, which is where he discovered both his prowess as a soloist and his performance muse in Eartha Kitt. Now, with silky gowns and a silken voice, he performs his artfully crafted solo evenings of songs and patter all over the world, an undeniably modern throwback.

“It takes a lot of heart, investment and talent to be able to engage your audience, to not only entertain them but also make them feel a journey of emotions throughout the show,” Arnaldo! says. “My standard for when I’ve achieved a good show is when you can hear a pin drop, when your audience is mesmerized, listening to every word, to every breath.”

Classic American cabaret is one end of a modern spectrum that spans from wild performance art to high-drama drag to the gala style of Broadway performers on their off nights. For Sally Ollove, a dramaturg who specializes in cabaret and is a booker at the Rendezvous, the common denominators that define the form are few but crucial. Chief among them is the relationship between performer and audience—nothing happening on stage is as important as that exchange.

“It’s an intimate evening, no matter the size of the space,” Ollove says. “And, for me, successful cabaret also has an element of danger. You as an audience member have agreed to enter into this space that is not necessarily safe—and I don’t mean ‘safe’ in the contemporary ‘safe space’ way. I mean that you will be asked to sit on the edge of your seat, you will be asked to engage in some way, whether that’s literal—being talked to or having to do something—or just being present.”

Today in Seattle, cabaret percolates in spots like the Rendezvous and Re-bar, Kremwerk and On the Boards. Glossier venues like the Triple Door and the Can Can traffic more in burlesque; though event listings often conflate the two, they’re fundamentally different. Both share variety-show origins and sensibilities, but much modern burlesque, once a revelatory tool for reclaiming a sexualized form for female empowerment, now only superficially connects performer and audience, titillates but doesn’t challenge.

Cabaret’s origins are plainly political. The form began to appear in the Montmarte area of Paris after the Paris Commune, a brief period of radical socialist rule in France following the defeat of Emperor Napoleon III. “It was outside of the city then, and it was middle-class artists living deliberately in this lower-class neighborhood and they created these places where they could go and complain about society through art,” Ollove says. “Pretty quickly they learned that the upper class loved to come join them and basically pay to be made fun of, which is great for everybody.”

After World War I, what had been a male-dominated form in Paris evolved into a queer-heavy form in Germany. A generation of men had died in the war, “so the artistic scene was influenced by Jews and queer women because that’s who was left in the city,” Ollove says. “Because of that, values of otherness or subversiveness entered the cabaret world.”

Christian Swacker preps for a show as Princess Charming. Photo by Robert Roth/Jetspace Magazine
The melancholy hedonism of Weimar Germany was sopped up and sanitized by expat composers like Cole Porter and George Gershwin and infused into the American songbook, where it became the artistic lifeblood of mid-century New York performers from Barbara Cook to Barbra Streisand. Smoke-filled clubs gave way to the steamy, saucy bathhouse stages of ’70s stars like Bette Midler, evolving further into the acid downtown exuberance of alter-ego acts like Kiki and Herb, an inimitable, satirical musical pairing begun in 1989.

Ollove is also the dramaturg for Philadelphia-based Bearded Ladies Cabaret and she’s currently working with company founder John Jarboe on an expansive, interactive history project called The Poison Cookie Jar, which will debut in 2018. The goal is to document an art form that has historically existed in the cracks within and between other art forms, often remaining hidden for safety’s sake. Ollove points out that the romantic, bohemian mythology of cabaret is perhaps an idealized one, popularized by the 1966 Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret, which is set astride the dangerous wave of conservatism as Weimar Germany crested into fascism. But the best contemporary cabaret artists still hold tight to the rebellious roots of the form.

Cabaret characters allow artists to sneak the subversive ideas of their day—ideas about queerness, racism, class inequalities—past ideological barriers. Newly minted MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Taylor Mac’s hugely successful A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, begun in 2011 and culminating in a 24-hour performance in 2016, dug through the files of American pop music starting in 1776, rearranged it and doused it in glitter. Using his dazzling stage persona as a delivery system, Mac deconstructed American history to help people clearly see the pain and hope in a past with which we must reckon. Another case in point: Christeene, an Austin-based character whose mesmerizing and horrifying presentation—stringy hair, violent makeup, blacked-out teeth, shredded clothing; she calls it “terrorist drag”—renders her magnetic, especially in jarring contrast to her warm, punk stage persona. “If Christeene says something,” Ollove says, “you both take it seriously and don’t take it seriously at the same time.” When an audience is having fun, they’re able to digest political and social messages they might otherwise reject out of hand—much like the upper-class Parisians of old.

Arson Nicki, recognizable for her black-lipped, unnaturally contoured look, is a rising star in Seattle’s alt-drag scene, a fecund overlap of drag and cabaret worlds. “When you look this crazy it gives people permission to hear what you have to say and accept it,” she says. As a UW acting student, Nicki spent four years feeling like she didn’t matter, relegated to playing comic sidekick roles and servants.

“I had all these things that I wanted to say and do, and in school people were like, You might want to tone that down a bit,” Nicki says. “When I started putting on dresses and lip-syncing to other people’s music for cabaret nights, I was like, I’m saying the same things that I’ve been saying for years but suddenly people are paying attention.”

Standing near the back wall of Wild Rose’s tiny performance space on a summer night, I craned my neck to see Princess Charming, all glorious bouffant and flowing white gown with chest hair peeking out. Over warm, lilting accompaniment from musical collaborator Andy Burian, Princess told a story with such poise and emotion that I remember few details—a mother, a plague of locusts—only the feeling of humid loneliness that flooded me as Princess told it.

“I became a much better actor because of my performance as Princess,” says Christian Swacker, creator and performer of Princess Charming. “If you don’t have that connection, if you’re not vulnerable, then it doesn’t work, and it’s not rewarding.” That relationship also makes cabaret nearly impossible to capture in a recording; only in the room can you feel the umbilical tug between performer and audience.

Cabaret was, is and always will be a phantasmagoria, evolving with its audience, speaking to us directly and becoming what we need it to be—a balm, a propellant, a communion.

Given their preternatural ability to connect with an audience, talented cabaret artists are increasingly being tapped for more mainstream roles: Emma Rice, outgoing artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, recently cast singer/performance artist/cabaret star Meow Meow as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Le Gateau Chocolat as Feste in Twelfth Night. Bridget Everett, a sensation of downtown New York cabaret, broke big into the film world this year, appearing in indie hits Patti Cake$ and Fun Mom Dinner. Seattle’s own Waxie Moon, who has long moved between burlesque, drama and dance, recently appeared as Ambrogio in Seattle Opera’s production of The Barber of Seville.

Adé Connére is a veteran cross-genre performer in Seattle, comfortable belting his heart out at Brown Derby’s stage production of Titanic at Re-bar, gliding the Legendary Children catwalk at SAM or crooning in front of a baby-grand piano at Vermillion. Whatever the venue, Connére performs with a calming, wry dignity, luminous and unflappable. “As time goes on, it just becomes second nature,” he says of anticipating his audience’s needs, a hallmark of any good cabaret performer. “Because I do so many different things in so many different places, I go into everything expecting the unexpected.”

“I think a lot about not giving up any of my artistic integrity or any of who I am as a performer,” Connére continues. “But I also think about what I need to convey to certain groups of people at different performances, and about how people are going to take it.”

Whether disarmingly personal or purely comical, cabaret’s irreverence masks its virtuosity; it takes a lot of work to have this much fun. Local favorite Dina Martina, a daffy vocalist hardly known for her singing, is nonetheless a brilliant comedian. Cherdonna Shinatra, pushing the boundaries of drag and theatre at every turn, is an extraordinary contemporary dancer. At any level, audience experience never takes a backseat to an artist’s personal expression—good cabaret isn’t a performer’s ego trip.

“When I’m performing it’s still me—it’s just me in better clothes,” Connére laughs. “When I’m on stage I’m strangely a lot less guarded. I make myself much more vulnerable to the public onstage than I do on a day-to-day basis.”

Kremwerk/Timbre Room, the cement bunker-like electronic-music venues burrowed in a side street of Denny Triangle, around the corner from longtime indie performance mainstay Re-bar, are another queer hotbed of alt-drag and alt-cabaret. Variety shows like Cucci’s Critter Barn and Family Meal with the Kipples lead the way, along with Arson Nicki’s monthly Rapture: A Queer Avant Garde Extravaganza. You don’t know what you’re going to get, but cookie-cutter drag beauty is out the door—paint may fly, wigs come off and sock puppets come out. It’s dark, supportive, experimental and wild. I once heard tell of a performer stapling things to her forehead during a Rapture show.

“There’s no judgment as long as you’re speaking your truth and being honest about it,” Arson Nicki says. She performed one of her favorite numbers when she’d been a year sober.

“I handcuffed myself to a bottle of champagne filled with water,” she says. At the apex of the song, she popped a hidden Alka-Seltzer tablet into her mouth and took a swig. “Whoosh, fizz just sprayed out of my mouth and I stumbled off. People either loved it or hated it, and that divisiveness is what I liked about it.”

In these dark, dangerous times, performer and audience need one another. Feelings of isolation—fomented by social media, a fractured political state, a country in agony—can be so overwhelming that just sitting together in the dark isn’t a communal enough experience to act as an antidote. We need active participation to spike our adrenaline and make us invest in one another. Uncomfortable can be fun, and fun reminds us that it’s OK to be uncomfortable. It’s possible to push past your preconceived limits, into a new place of radical understanding.

Coming up: See Arnaldo! Drag Chanteuse on Nov. 5 at Julia’s on Broadway in Les Etoiles, a fundraiser for the Pacific Northwest Cabaret Association. Arson Nicki hosts Rapture on Nov. 11 (and every second Saturday) at the Timbre Room. Adé Connére performs on Nov. 2 at Re-bar, and on Nov. 3 at Seattle Public Library for PlayBack Afterhours.