Monday 18 January 2016

The Art of Vaudeville - Of Traditions in Alternative Arts

Unoccupied, a dressing room is just a big room, or a big room holding many smaller, half-closed rooms. A set of counters, mirrors and lots of strategically-placed lights, along with chairs and coat racks, set the tone for its purpose. In a dressing room, you will dress down, and dress up -and dress down again, and back up, into the many shapes of your Self.

A dressing room is a place of transformation, and will become as lively as the people who will come into it, and turn their Everyday Selves (or in my case last night, turn their Everyday-Montreal-Winter-Selves) into their Stage Selves, their Show Selves, their Passion Selves. Their True Selves.

And so, when put together in a dressing room in 2016, a group of artists performing in a New Style Vaudeville cabaret will turn the said-dressing room into a place of traditions, rituals and secrets, and a place of focus, rehearsals and the shaping of stories. People, half-dressed and half made-up, will drop in and out of conversations as often as they'll drop in and out of rooms, and it is as common to speak of sage and mythology as it is to speak of glitter and online crowdfunding campaigns.  

The day before performing for the very first time in a Vaudeville-inspired cabaret, I wondered of many things. I wondered of the experience of the dressing room, but mostly, I wondered about the Art of Vaudeville.

When looking at its history, Vaudeville comes across as this open form of entertainment, where any talented, well-rehearsed and above all original performance artist could see a way of presenting his or her act to the world. The glory years of Vaudeville were seemingly the 1890s, and its decline began in the early 1910s with the rise of cinema, along with its new standards of beauty, its dictation of what culture should be, and what it should be represented by. Soon enough, the culture of modern society would be taken over by the imperialism of Hollywood, thus losing every sense of break-through authenticity and social reflection.
On the surface, of course.
On the clearly visible, glimpse-of-the-eye surface, when looking at the forest and not the trees.

One of the things about humans is resilience, for if some of us or even just one of us believes in something, we will keep on standing, fighting and living for what we believe in, and eventually associate with like-minded folks, creating a solid and ever-expanding community that will keep a flame strong. And then, one of the things about life is balance, and therefore every surface has its depth, and every cultural movement has its counter-attack. In other words, pop (tart) culture could not be defined as it is if there was no alternative culture.

Vaudeville thus never truly died, and indeed has been experiencing a beautiful, refreshing revival since the early 2000s. This revival stands as an evolution, not a mimic, for the means used to both produce the show, and promote it, along with the messages and stories behind the performances, are very much in tune with the times. Computers are used to create and generate lighting effects and playlists from music downloaded on USB key, magicians tell tales of gamblers playing the family's income and savings for a TV in a traditional Tarot card and coins trick, and burlesque performers of every size, shape and gender (or lack-of) are likely to strip to the sounds of dubstep.

However, the beauty of its underground form remains. In true, alternative culture fashion, these kinds of New Vaudeville shows will be presented in smaller, often second-floor or basement venues and cabarets, and will only be advertized on social media, within a very solid, supportive and tight-knit community of performers and aficionados of every possible kind of alternative art form out there. And of course, there will not be any kind of interest in funding available from the government, or advertisement by major labels or production companies. These shows are organized and funded by the artists themselves, who will more often than not have one or many jobs on the side in order to be able to keep doing what they're doing.

And the main reason why the beauty of its underground form remains is because Vaudeville never truly died, for generations upon generations of so-called side-show acts, circus performers, burlesque dancers, occult magicians, unfathomable drag kings and queens, and uncensorable singer-songwriters and actors have continuously been opening up to each other, sharing in inspiration, feeding off each other's art. Exchanges like these are usually witnessed in dressing rooms.

After all, we owe it to each other to keep the traditions of the alternative arts strong -starting with the Arts themselves.

So what makes us alternative artists hold on to these traditional alternative arts?
Possibly, if not absolutely and irrevocably, the mere sight or sound of anything related to pop-tart mass-media culture. For every movement has a counter-movement, and every blonde pop star will have an industrial-dark cabaret raven-haired nemesis. Every "proper" form of art has its dirty side, and its dirty side is usually where its core lies.

And then maybe, just maybe, it's not so much that we, the artists, are the ones holding onto the art form. Maybe, just maybe, it's the art forms that are carefully selecting, and holding on to us -the Us, You or Me that you're likely to meet in a dressing room.

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