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THE ART OF THE SMALL GESTURE
One of the most difficult
things for a cabaret performer to learn, it seems, is perfecting the
art of the small gesture. Actually, for some folks this is difficult
in real life as well. Cabaret is an "intimate" medium - and by that
I don't mean size of room or audience. I mean it a cabaret performance
is a "conversation" rather than an "oration."
If you really want to
see the art of the small gesture done best, go to a performance of
Wesla Whitfield, who because of an unfortunate incident several years
ago is confined to a wheelchair, and for her cabaret performances
is seated on a high stool the entire time. She does not need to climb
atop the piano (a very common cabaret move, lately) or move all over
the stage to "sell her song." Just a simple turn of the head, the
arching of an eyebrow, or the warmth of a smile is all that is needed.
In fact, the fewer and
smaller the gestures, the more attention is paid to the lyric and
the song. I recently attended a cabaret show where the performer had
previously only worked as a piano bar entertainer. In a piano bar
folks are oft times not paying attention to the performer. So performers
in that medium use several flamboyant techniques to get the audience's
consideration. In the cabaret room, these actions became a distraction.
Performers who move from
live theater to the cabaret often make the same mistake. They at times
feel they must play to "the second balcony," with extreme facial expressions,
body movement and gesturing. I understand that theater performers
have the same difficulty when making the move to film or TV. Everything
has to be toned back, since the camera is up close much of the time.
One time I saw Karen Saunders
change the mood of a song completely with just the simple turn of
one ankle! That simple change of posture was just on target for the
song. Judy Kreston is another practitioner of the art of the small
gesture. Watch what she does to a song to bring home its story with
the simple lifting of a shoulder, or a sidewards glance towards her
accompanist, her husband David Lahm. Charles Cermele can do things
with his eyebrows, and Tom Andersen can simply lift his elbows slightly
to make a song take on a new dimension. I have never seen any of the
above move very far from center stage, or climb atop a piano.
Another mistake many new
cabaret performers make is the feeling that somehow they must use
the entire cabaret stage in their show. Many directors mistakenly
advise them that some songs must be sung at the far left, others far
right, and then that special ballad must be sung on a stool at the
very back wall of the stage area. In an attempt to be "theatrical"
the whole point of the art of cabaret gets muddled and unfocused.
I have seen folks like
Steve Ross, Julie Gold, Steven Lutvak, Tim DiPasqua, Rick Jensen and
other singer/pianists do fantastic cabaret shows while seated at the
piano, hardly moving at all from the keyboard! They all have perfected
the art of communication, where nothing said or done distracts from
the lyric or the song. And most important, they know the technique
of eye contact - the old saying is that the eye is the window to the
soul. Don't close that window to your audience.
Now this does not mean
that there is no movement in your show. There should be as much animation
as you normally use when conversing with a friend. But the flamboyant
gesture should be reserved for the climactic moments in your cabaret
show. They should only be used to bring special attention to a special