Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Wie gehts? Comment ça va? Do you feel good? (yeah, I bet you do)

Kander and Ebb have spoiled me. When I heard a cabaret suggested, without even thinking I expected this:

Le Cabaret Lido, however, does not trade in the dirty glamour of self-destruction. Le Cabaret Lido trades in Bonheur.

The ubiquitous nudity is not in any way pornographic. In fact, Bonheur’s version of sexuality is almost laughably sterile, like a party for undressed mannequins, or Las Vegas. The revue goes to great lengths to create one unified backdrop or aesthetic impression out of dozens of dancers. Its effects recall those in Busby Berkeley dance numbers, but without the benefit of overhead views.

(Relevant extract begins at 2:10.)

At this abstraction I felt a discomfort that rarely bothered me while watching a Berkeley confection. I was not at ease with such an erasure of individual personality in color rather than black and white and in person rather than projected on a screen. I don’t think I was the only one. Kai and I both chose favorites from among the background dancers, followed them visually from one song or placement to another, and noted the particularities that distinguished their performances from the virtually identical ones around them.

I wanted to undo the careful, professional work that has made Lido the largest and most celebrated cabaret in Paris; I sought out each tiny deviation from the slick, airbrushed-in-real-time veneer. One of the lead performers was covered in freckles, and one background dancer had a cartoonishly square jaw. These glimpses of reality sustained me through the more slick, candy-coated parts of the show.

The other breaks from glossy collective perfection came from a juggler, an acrobat, and a pair of figure skaters. During their respective performances, they were alone on the stage, and their achievements were startlingly individual. The personality and responsibility of each of these performers were key to their acts; the juggler’s misses increased the suspense and made the audience cheer him on, the rapport between the figure skaters defined their effect on the audience, and the acrobat’s virtuosity kept the spectators in awe of his personal strength and skill. They resisted the revue’s attempts to group them with a faceless, coherent unity of Lido performers.

Though these acts pretended to sex appeal far less than the polished dance numbers, they had far more success in attaining it. As one member of our party said about the acrobat, who wound floor-to-ceiling ribbons around himself and himself around the ribbons and rose and fell in mesmerizing rhythm, “Je voudrais être son corde.” Amid high-polish collectivism, the eroticism of individual strength, talent, and personality came to the fore.

Le Cabaret Lido afforded me fewer thrills than it sought to, but it provided a valuable occasion to reflect on what I often look for in art and in life: the failure of artifice. The rough patches of genuine humanity interest me more than a shiny picture come to life, but a production that unites flawless technique with human insight will hold my attention every time.

However counterintuitive it seems, I can thank the nameless, voiceless dancers of Le Cabaret Lido for affirming my love of cabaret’s talky, pretentious cousin: theater.

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