Reviews, News and Commentary

Auckland Arts Festival. Blanc de Blanc’s slick highly – professional circus cabaret

Reviewed by Malcolm Calder

Blanc de Blanc Encore

Strut & Fret

Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent

Aotea Square

9 – 26 March

Reviewed by Malcolm Calder

Cabaret Lives!

Regular Festivalgoers may recall Strut & Fret’s initial iterations of Blanc de Blanc from 2019.  Well it’s back.  It’s bigger and it’s better.

This show (cos that’s what it essentially is) first saw the light of day a few years back, has come a long way from its Fringe origins and now thoroughly deserves its place in the contemporary mainstream.  Fret & Strut toured the original extensively, took on board a wide range of feedback as well as their own analysis and then gave it a comprehensive brush-up. 

The end result is something that’s tighter, slicker and reeks of sophistication. It has become entertainment for everyone with a capital E.  Along with the black, white and bling aesthetic, bubbles are everywhere and allusions to circussurface constantly, and Blanc de Blanc still managesto reference olde-world burlesque and cabaret, while remaining firmly implanted in a contemporary  world.

Somewhere in its dark and sometimes murky past New Zealand devised its own form of ‘cabaret’.  For a very long time too.  With only a handful of notable exceptions, NZ cabaret bore no relation to an artform devised and practiced elsewhere, especially in Europe.  Instead of intimate musical and other entertainment for ‘friendly’ audiences in small smokey rooms, ‘cabarets’ in New Zealand were really just big public dances with a live band before rock n roll arrived.  Nor did we grasp ‘burlesque’ as an artform.  Instead, we discarded satire, social commentary and often brilliantly contrived dance for a cheaper, sleazier version that tended to feature a fair bit of skin instead. And we consigned burlesque to Gentlemen’s Clubs (and even gentlemen’s clubs) largely because of a then-prevalence middle-class English faux social values.  The two terms followed similar paths in Australia.

However, things started to change in Europe during the latter half of the twentieth century.  Cabaret started to merge with burlesque, particularly in the Parisian and Berlin hangouts of the 1980s.  Magic acts, acrobatics and circus started to blend into music, dance and extravagant costuming.  Yes, skin still featured, but spectacular entertainment that appealed to a lot more people had become the name of the game.  Think David Bowie or even that aptly named music-theatre piece featuring Liza.  We were in the punk period.

And the burgeoning Fringe scene that drew the twentieth century to a close was the perfect time for contemporary cabaret to start intruding on the antipodes.

Today we have an artform that reaches far beyond overly serious gents with white beards satirising Weimar politics of the 1920s and reaches a post-punk generation that is a tad older than it was when the twentieth century drew to a close.   Yet one that, somehow, still reaches the Tik Tok generation and Auckland’s opening night audience was a microcosm of this melange.  Not family-fare admittedly (it’s all the alcohol y’know), but the odd suggestion of a flaccid penis beating a drum or the flash of a well-nippled breast (let’s call it a towel-tease) does more than enough to maintain interest across generations and keep one alert – just in case.  And it comes to us from Australia.

Because that is what Blanc de Blanc Encore does – it suggests, it implies, it teases and it is all done with outstanding showmanship that keeps its audience constantly entertained.  Then it suddenly breaks all the rules and darts off to introduce the unexpected.  No spoiler alert here, just suffice to say things may happen right in front of you.  Or on your lap, Or above you.  Or behind you.  Unexpected things.

However it’s not until the second act that things really take off.  Literally and well as figuratively – and in more than one sense too.  For me, that was when the term ‘circus-cabaret’ roared in from my sub-conscious.  Acrobatics, aerobatics, side-show thrills, a quick segway linking a torch singer to a tad of magic, some pure athleticism and you’ve got the lot.  Not entirely sure about the girl in a dress doing fairly mechanical rhythmic things to a bloke towards the end, but I can live with that.  Oh yes, there were feathers too.  Lots of feathers.  Feathers everywhere.  And even a reveal delivered by parachute.

Woven between these seemingly unrelated series of acts and cameos however, is an underlying appreciation for, and acknowledgement of, some of the finest traditions of cabaret.  Subtle and almost missable, but there all the same.  Congratulations to the company on that score.

Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention – the spiegeltent is the perfect setting for Blanc de Blanc Encore.  Its Victorian-styled stained glass mirrors and circular stage not only acknowledge the genre’s antecedents, but are an ideal setting for a fast moving show with a French vibe that breaks rules.  Remember to stock up on bubbles though. They feature throughout and the (surprisingly tiny) bar gets pretty busy during interval.

And that’s what we’ve got with Blanc de Blanc Encore in 2023.  Strut & Fret may have learned their craft on Australia’s fringe circuit but their 21st century production line has matured this show into a slick, highly-professional circus cabaret with a wide appeal.  Recommended.

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By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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