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Modern Cabaret Revival with Small Stages Canada

By Kelsey Sunstrum on June 16, 2015

Twinkling lights adorned the small stage area, designating the space a dance zone, as 2-person tables in the audience quickly filled up with 3 and 4 people, and attendees dutifully waited in line for their coveted drink tickets.

As more and more people filed in and the excited murmurs grew louder, I scanned the room for clues as to what the night had in store. I spotted my fiancé patiently shuffling forward as he drew closer and closer to the head of the drink line. “He has no idea what he’s about to witness,” I thought, with amusement.

Small Stages Canada, presented June 9th and 10th at the National Arts Centre’s Fourth Stage, was inspired by Weimar Cabaret, popular in late ‘20s Germany. Characterized by not only dance numbers but also music and comedy, the cabaret was one of the few places where outcasts and marginalized peoples of the time could let loose and be themselves. The same spirit was felt at the modern rendition, which I took in last Tuesday.

The evening was guided by emcee Billy Marchenski, as he somewhat hesitantly performed short charmingly awkward sketches – the first which had the audience stand to sing the national anthem – as the sets were changed for the following act. We were entertained by ten numbers by a group of passionate dancers from across the country. Ottawa was represented by Tedd Robinson, part of the two-man piece, “Stick.Study.Riley.Tedd.#1,” with the brilliant red-painted large tree branch prop.

The performances varied in nature from solemn, introspective solos, to interactive, and quirky, truly adopting the riveting nature of the cabaret. Each number was affecting, and danced with strength and soul. The interpretative piece, “Part,” by performer and choreographer, Chengxin Wei, set to traditional Chinese music was contemplative and philosophical, accented by a stark white sheet in which danced the performer. “Third Party,” a creation of Liz Peterson and Cathy Gordon, saw words translated into movement as Cathy instructed audience plant, Adam Palazzo, in a chemistry-filled dance with Liz. Karissa Barry’s eerie “/Prelude” stuck with me, a physical telling of yearning and heartache that was utterly haunting. Patrick Pennefather was the sonic glue of the evening, providing rousing piano accompaniment and understated comedic relief to the acts.

Political satire was a celebrated component of the Weimar Cabaret era. Accordingly, Small Stages Canada did not shy away from jabs at the government or the dramatization of topical events. At one point, we were treated to a rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” by performers costumed in Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau masks. The final number, a burlesque song and dance by the luminous Burgundy Brixx, lamented the cessation of the Canadian penny. These pieces graciously lifted the audience’s spirits after moodier numbers.

A showcase of immensely talented dancers from Canada, Small Stages Canada made a fan out of me after the 70 minute cabaret spectacle. Hailing from a dance background, I enthusiastically devoured the unabashed whimsy of the evening. My fiancé, not as familiar with the complex eccentricity of performers, was somewhat lost. I’m reminded of a moment when, as an interlude between numbers, an ensemble of dancers – a herd, if you will – act out an increasingly hostile scene between caribou, when I turned to him and was met with a look of pure befuddlement. It is definitely a night for you and your best arty friend, but know your eagerness may not be understood by all parties.

 Small Stages Canada was a part of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival, and presented in association with MovEnt and the Canada Dance Festival. To find out more about the Dances for a Small Stage movement, check out MovEnt’s website.