There was an interview on RNZ that caught my attention. Auckland composer Claire Cowan talked about the group she’d founded, Blackbird Ensemble and their upcoming show ‘Dreams’ at the Auckland Cabaret Festival. Along with some of the Ensemble members, Claire explained what Cabaret actually was (which I’d always envisioned as something in-between burlesque and drag) as more of a ‘Switzerland’ of artistic styles.
While Blackbird Ensemble normally has a rotating cast of up to 25 people, ‘Dreams’ was a smaller production created by just 9 musicians, and more of a collaborative, band feel. The show’s description promised an exploration of music ‘inspired by our subconscious minds, dream states, nightmares, lullabies and rituals of the bedroom.’ It sounded like something cool to say I’d done on the weekend, so, I did the sensible thing and got free reviewers tickets (thanks Craccum).
I’d never been to a Cabaret before, and I know nothing about music apart from what I like. So, I did another sensible thing and took someone with a degree in music composition along with me. Unfortunately, it’s me and not him writing this, but readers can be assured that I did take an Actual Musical Perspective into account.
The stage was set up with two beds, a giant cloud floating above, and musicians dressed in pyjamas or nighties sprawled about in varying states of wakefulness. I found it all rather slow and sleepy at first (as was the intention, I’m guessing – but it made me yawn). I was not a fan of the overly languid movements that the cast seemed so fond of, nor was I of some of the odd instrumental combinations: double bass + ukulele??
The lead male singer was good, but the female lead singer was amazing and absolutely dominated all of their duets. Amazingly, neither of them took a break throughout the hour and a half concert and 17 songs.
Ironically, it wasn’t up until a rendition of Loudon Wainwright III’s Lullaby that I managed to shake the feeling of sleepiness that the songs and choreography had given me. It did sneak back at times, but can you really blame me when literally all of the songs referenced beds, sleep, lullabies, or dreams?
Despite the strictly-enforced dream-motif, the song arrangements were diverse and eclectic; Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Radiohead, Stravinsky, Gillian Welch, Nina Simone, The Cure, Editors, The Smiths, and Amy Winehouse, amongst others featured in the show. The energy of ‘Dreams’ rose and fell in what I thought was a pretty unpredictable manner. One particularly tear-wrenching song called ‘Oh Love’ by Ane Brun was immediately followed up some pretty jarring notes from an accordion, and the flow between songs seemed odd in a few other cases too.
According to the RNZ interview, a good cabaret is meant to get the audience involved, and apart from one lone clapper in Nick Cave’s ‘I had a dream, Joe’, there was only one other instance of an intentional effort at this (a charmingly creepy performance of The Cure’s ‘Lullaby’ performed by the trombonist-cum-singer). I think it’s worth noting that the lack of audience engagement could’ve very well been more to do with the audience themselves (who were mostly old and white) than the musicians (who were all young, exuberant and extremely talented).
The whole thing was based around a loose storyline of a couple falling in love, arguing, breaking up, and then getting back together again (I think). I’ll be honest and say that I’d expected something raunchier – especially when it’s set in a bed. But maybe the fact there was nothing sexual was subversive in itself? Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I can’t help but wish that Dreams had been a bit darker, dirtier and deeper (yeah I love innuendo). Still, I’d be keen to go to see either the Blackbird Ensemble or another show at the next Cabaret Festival.
The musician said he expected more from Claire Cowan, but overall he liked it.