Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!
Fremder, Etranger, Stranger
Gluklich zu sehen. Je suis enchante.
Happy to see you. Bleibe. Reste. Stay.
Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!
Im Cabaret, Au Cabaret, To Cabaret.Cabaret
The famed Broadway musical Cabaret starts with this greeting. Based on the Christopher Isherwood novel Goodbye to Berlin, Cabaret confronts the realities of the huge Berlin cabaret community when the Nazis came to power in 1933. What had once been not only a thriving burlesque scene, but one of the hallmarks of Weimar-era Berlin vanished. But it has returned, and with a vengeance.
Let’s start with a few defining terms. Cabaret is, by its definition, satirical revue. It uses a number of forms. Burlesque is one of those, and perhaps the most important. Burlesque is an art form combining dance and caricature, with over-the-top (and often sexual) characters meant to bridge the concept of the theatrical extravaganza and raw human emotion. While cabaret began in France, its merge with the burlesque form was perfected right here in Berlin in the early part of the 20th century, and continues today.
Berliner burlesque cabaret officially began in 1901 with the opening of Uberbrettl. By the Weimar era, numerous companies were performing nightly, characterized by a gallows humor that was perhaps necessary in the economic reality of that period. Nudity was common, as were sexual costumes that have become the hallmark of a burlesque show.
Today, that tradition continues through a number of venues throughout Berlin offering burlesque shows, or even a more complete cabaret experience. I decide to take in a show (offered Friday and Saturday nights) at Zum Starken August in East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district, which is also where I happen to be staying during my time here in the city. A €10 cover, a €4 beer, and I sit down in a cross between a dive bar and circus for the 830pm show. (A table reservation is necessary, though I was able to get mine merely a day prior.)
Tonight, the performers are a Dutch duo. One a singer in drag (in the first photo in the article), the other a juggler and musician (he even played a tune on a saw, like an actual saw to cut wood), the two are hilarious, talented, and engaging. A hallmark of burlesque is the creation of a relationship between performer and audience, and that is done to perfection, with the feeling less of watching a show and more of being with that over-the-top friend we all have. Three sets over an hour, and I am left wanting more.
So I’ve had my burlesque experience in Berlin, right? Well, yes, but I also have a tough time writing about something I’ve never personally tried. Lucky for me, just down the street in Prenzlauer Berg is the Berlin Burlesque Academy, founded by Marlene von Steenvag. Called “Germany’s Queen of Burlesque,” Marlene is young, hilarious, and driven to not only increase the profile of her art, but also to make it more accessible to a wide variety of people.
So after a brief conversation with her, I find myself in a dance studio with a group of a dozen or so women who are practicing to be the opening act for another of Marlene’s ventures, the Berlin Burlesque Festival, held in October. As a couple of their members are unable to make it tonight, I get to sub in. Totally unprepared to do this, I wear jeans (my other options were dress slacks and pajama pants, so I think I chose wisely), and try my best to keep up with the group.
As with everything the academy does, prior experience isn’t necessary, and there are no qualifications at all. This group ranges from (in my estimation) those in their twenties to those in their sixties, with dance experience varying just as widely. Marlene is assisted by Anja Pavlova, a professional dancer who is doing the choreography. They remind the group that burlesque is about a character, about confidence, and about connection with the audience, with each other, and inwardly with ourselves. They couldn’t be more supportive. Frequent laughter goes hand in hand with the lesson, suggestions from the group are eagerly welcomed, and even as I prance (I am told to use my hips, so I do my best to try) around in a feather headdress, I feel a sense of belonging. My smile, nervous to start, becomes wide – and real.
Marlene describes burlesque to me in its essence. “For me, burlesque means inventing myself in a way that would have had no place in everyday life. It gives me freedom and joy, and it empowers me to be whatever I can dream of.” She certainly passes that spirit along to her students, even conducting this lesson in English just for me so that I can also find that joy. Well, I do, and from the smiles of those around me, so do they.
Back at my apartment, I reflect. In my life, I often have a hard time letting go. It is scary to pull back the curtain and show my true self. Burlesque allowed me that freedom. And no, I’m not going to start sashaying down the street in a feathered headdress (let alone the rest of the highly provocative and sexy costume). But burlesque allowed me to enjoy losing myself in something new, free from any worry that I’d be judged. In a room full of strangers, I could invent a character and find support for doing so. That is powerful.
The tradition of burlesque and cabaret is storied, especially here in Berlin. While it may have changed from something satirical to something sexual and from there to its modern form of expression, it is part of the root of what Berlin means. By watching it, and especially by trying it, I have added my name to that story. And I hope you will, too.
Thank you so much to Marlene and the Berlin Burlesque Academy for offering me the chance to experience your art for myself. This is an experience I’ll treasure.
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