“1865 – CAFÉ ROYAL, London; 1915 – The Moulin Rouge is destroyed by fire and The Cabaret Voltaire was created in Zurich; 1965 – Liza Minnelli made her debut on Broadway; 2015 – The Violet Crab opened in London.” So stated the release for “The Violet Crab” at the David Roberts Art Foundation, a material exhibition of a definitively immaterial form of spectacle—cabaret—curated by Than Hussein Clark, Vincent Honoré, and Nicoletta Lambertucci.
One hundred years after the establishment of the Cabaret Voltaire, Clark used the occasion to homage the genre by organizing “DZ Hosts the Violet Crab,” an exemplary iteration of that historically rebellious form of variety theatre, which has now, for better or for worse, become an oft-mimicked method. The improvisational atmosphere was made clear at the door. There, a greeter hired by Pierre Huyghe emphatically announced each guest’s arrival as they were ushered into the main exhibition room and seated at cocktail tables before the stage. We have seen Pipilotti Rist in her films, but for her proclaimed “first-ever performance” she invoked the ambience of a nightclub, giving her proxy, Javier Aparicio, room to dance his flirtatious, enthusiastically received striptease to a song Rist wrote in 1997. (Including lyrics like “The blood of your shaving wound/Let me sip it like holy water,” some in the audience wondered whether Rist had played a role in the latest Madonna album.) Zhana Ivanova had her own proxies in Borrowed Splendour, for which she invited plants in the audience to the stage while she sat to its right, speaking directives to the ad hoc actors through a microphone. The meta-intrigue enacted a politics of flirtation and power between the two male characters, played by Citizens! lead singer Tom Burke and artist Eddie Peake, who vied for the attention of the central female, played by dealer Pilar Corrias.
Like a courtroom drama, the entire evening was documented with pen-and-ink washes by Isobel Williams, who sat at an easel to the right of the stage. I would like to think that these drawings could record the precision of the ballet dancer Jean Capeille, enacting steps from La Bayadère—most famously performed by Rudolf Nureyev—alongside actor Rory Keys, who read a vivid letter from Christodoulos Panayiotou addressed to a personal friend. In it, Panayiotou describes his stay on the Amalfi Coastal island of Li Galli, which has notorious connections to both Nureyev and the mythical Ulysses, with lyrical candor that departed from the more cartoonish musical comedy routines of the hosts, Hussein Clark and Anja Dietman, who kept to a very Cabaret version a cabaret.
Several of the Violet Crab participants were artists not normally associated with theater, and they employed the stage in developing something different. A first read might infer, from the men’s black leather motorcycle suit Celia Hempton wore as she walked in front of the audience, that she was keeping on-message with the Weimar-era dominatrix theme. But she became a welcome contradiction to the trope as she switched on the room’s stark florescent lights, revealing that her apparel was baggy and ill-fitting; she unceremoniously walked across the stage and punched a man with an unflinching expression, Marco Scuri, in the stomach several times. During an evening that burlesqued sexual representation, the minimal interlude suggested that subversion isn’t always neatly seductive.
This premise had been earlier demonstrated by Matthew Dickman who, while the most deceptively conventional of the evening’s acts—standing onstage, alone, conducting a poetry recital—was also the most innovative, interpolating what are assumed to be personal bedroom encounters—“Your ankles make me want to party, want to sit and beg and roll over under a pair of riding boots with your ankles hidden inside”—with historical and pop-cultural erudition (“The Gettysburg Address is the money-shot of any speech…”). His reading prompted the evening’s most raucous audience response, and confirmed that real inventiveness defies generic notions of bourgeois good taste, and takes us somewhere totally new. To hold the balance, the evening ended with a return to the theatrical cabaret, this inhabited by Wendy Bevan, who seriously delivered in her “songstress” role. Spotlit and alone, wearing a long, sparkling dress, her operatic crescendos shifted the mood from the “experimental” climate established by the preceding acts, emphasizing that a cabaret is, by definition, entertainment.