Adelaide Cabaret Festival Explores The Possibilities Of The Art Form

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'Carmen, Live Or Dead' 'Carmen, Live Or Dead'

The Adelaide Cabaret Festival kicks off in June, with Artistic Director Ali McGregor in her role for the third and final time after running the two previous festivals with Eddie Perfect.


Following renovations to the Festival Centre that informed previous themes, Ali explains, “This year when the Festival Centre was re-opened, their whole focus has been turned on to the River Torrens and I wanted people to see the Festival anew. So the theme this year is ‘Eyes Open’ but again it fit really nicely with what has been happening socially in the world in that I think it has been a year of us waking up. We have been 'woke' to paraphrase hashtags around the world. We’ve had these revolutions, of the MeToo Movement; we’ve had the marriage equality vote. There’s a lot of things where we’re really opening up our eyes to other people’s stories and other people’s experiences; cabaret for me has always been like the canary down the mine. It’s always been at the forefront of social change and although I didn’t want our programme to be just political I think we have to absolutely represent what’s happening in the world and I think there are a lot of shows that are talking about those issues. But I also wanted to make sure we had a diversity of stories, because we have this perfect opportunity for people to tell stories so the rest of us can get an insight into other people’s plights, other people’s stories, it creates empathy.”

One of these stories is ‘Carmen, Live or Dead’ starring Natalie Gamsu who says, “The show is about the world of Carmen Frida Leon Davidovich. Her incredible journey to find what belonging means. What family means. And how to celebrate oneself no matter what. Carmen is the fictional love child of Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky. An intersex woman, A Mexican refugee who searches the world for love and adventure. ‘Carmen, Live or Dead’ is irreverent and bold and eclectic, and it all comes together as a celebration of life and what it means to be human.” Natalie is also excited for one more thing when it comes to the festival: “To be part of that wonderful community! A cabaret community from all over the world. What better is there? It's such a buzz to be sharing work with so many extraordinary artists.”

Homme Fatale
'Homme Fatale'

Ali, having originally started out in opera, has a real passion for cabaret and has been involved with it for more than the past decade. “I see the arts as a Venn diagram and you have these big circles and you have theatre in one circle and live music in another circle and comedy in a circle and maybe burlesque and circus and dance all in their own circles. And then in between all those circles there will be overlaps and that’s where cabaret comes in. I think it’s an art form that fits in the cracks and it’s quite often very hard to define because of that. Which is what I kind of love because, coming from a very classical background, I started my life as an opera singer and it’s very easy to define opera, we know what that is. Cabaret is anything you want it to be, as an artist you can come in and make it anything you want as long as it speaks to an audience directly.”

In her final year as Artistic Director, the performer is heavily involved in a few shows including the debut of ‘Yma Sumac’ about the Peruvian songbird. When asked which makes her more nervous, her role as Yma or her role as Artistic Director, there’s no hesitation in answering. “I think debuting my new show is absolutely the thing that scares me the most, it’s the most challenging show I’ve ever done and it’s the first show that I’ve really truly written myself, it also involves a whole lot of people. Usually in cabaret I’ve made sure my band is as small as possible because then if I fail I’m not disappointing too many people. It’s scary suddenly having a six piece band, two other cast members and a director and a lighting director and a sound designer. I’m really excited with how it’s going. I don’t feel nervous as Artistic Director at all really.

"I feel really blessed that our festival has the position in the world now where I can go to some of the best performers around the world and ask them if they want to be part of the festival and they say yes. Of course I want everyone to love everyone else and for the programme to be successful, but once we get to the festival my work has been done.”

The Legend Of Queen Kong
'The Legend Of Queen Kong'

The Director has a great deal of praise for the local crowds. “Adelaide audiences are the most loyal audiences I’ve ever played to. They really stick with you, they come back year after year and they bring their friends, the word of mouth is very powerful in Adelaide and they know how to listen.”

Such a commitment and pride in the largest Cabaret Festival in the world comes from her history with the art form. Years ago, as an opera singer, Ali received some advice from the incredible Australian soprano Lisa Gasteen: “She said 'you will be defined by the jobs you say no to. Do only the things that really matter to you, that really speak to you and make it count' is kind of how she described it to me.” It was advice Ali took to heart when she literally “ran away with the circus”. She had also been told a story by opera director Jonathan Miller about opera singers in the 1800s leaving their work at Covent Garden, stripping their outer costumes and then performing in Wilton’s Music Hall in public and having money thrown at them by the masses. She couldn’t get the evocative idea out of her head.

YmaSumacPeruvianSongbird
'Yma Sumac – The Peruvian Songbird'

So it came to be, she was performing 'Manon' for Opera Australia and The Famous Spiegeltent was next door parked outside the arts centre. “It’s a very long involved story about losing a necklace down a drain and then having someone help me and having that someone be David Bates who owned The Famous Spiegeltent and sort of chatting to him and telling him this story. He said, 'well why don’t you do that here', so it’s exactly what I did. I took off my outer clothes and kept the corsets and petticoats and I brought some people from the chorus with me into their late night club which was called Club Swizzle and I sang one of my arias into this heaving mass of sweaty spiegeltent folks who’d been watching burlesque and listening to live bands... I absolutely caught the bug and joined their show 'La Clique' and the rest is history!”

Ali had answered the siren song of cabaret and it has remained an important part of her life. “The very first year I came to Adelaide Cabaret Festival, I think I turned to Lisa Campbell and said oh my God, I’ve found my family. It was a moment where I just felt very welcomed, very at home and like I was with my people.” Audiences too are sure to feel at home and very entertained at this year’s festival.

Adelaide Cabaret Festival’ runs at Adelaide Festival Centre, 8-23 June.

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