[This article was published in CircusMagazine #49 – December 2016]
[Author: Evelien Jonckheere – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
A mishmash of domestic and international jugglers, acrobats, musicians and comedians buzz around your head as you’re bewitched by the multitude of surprises to be found on your plate. That’s the multi-sensual show of Cirq à Roma – and beyond that, every dinner show – in a nutshell. A mega-spectacle to drive your senses wild. An original concept in Flanders. At least at present day, as a brief look to the past will show that there was a time when the variety show offered a similar sort of experience. What’s more, the German dinner show has been in revival for quite some time. Traveling in time and hopping borders, Evelien Jonckheere sketches out the origins and evolution of the dinner show and dares to ask the million-dollar question: is there a future for the dinner show here in Flanders?
THE VARIETY SHOW AS FORERUNNER OF THE DINNER SHOW
Industrialisation at the end of the eighteenth century brought with it a new surge of possibilities for leisure and entertainment. Nightlife was no longer tied to the agrarian calendar with its carnivals and annual fairs. More and more often, the wooden structures of the funfair were left standing as new permanent features of the city. This became viable with the new industrial work-rhythm of men and women and the density of an urban population in cities bursting at the seams. At the end of the nineteenth century almost every major city on the continent had its own circus built of stone, theatre halls and cafés with exotic names like Eden-Théâtre, Alcazar, Eldorado or Palais Indien. It was possible to see traveling circuses and carnival artists on a daily basis. The audience of those variety shows could invariably drink something during the performance and usually there was a buffet available as well.
Just as the budding department stores sold a variety of goods on a daily basis, to the detriment of the traditional markets, there were by the end of the century more and more places where one could see a variety of circus and carnival artists on any given day. These venues were the ‘department stores of leisure’, and came in all shapes and sizes, from small cafés with a few tables to large scale halls with shows set to entertain 3000 spectators per night. The multifunctional variety halls were luxurious places with lots of plush velvet, mirrors and quite often an Asiatic decor. All these factors contributed to a sensational total experience, and the variety event grew to become a profitable concept.
This formula was partially made possible through the development of a transportation network in the course of the nineteenth century. It enabled artists to travel around the world much more quickly, from venue to venue, sent by professional international agencies. The venues often maintained good contacts with each other, and networks which included several variety halls were set up. For example, The Belgian family Mathonnet owned a whole imperium of halls which included the famous Oud-Belgiës (Old Belgium) spread out all over Brussels and Flanders. Not only the artists, but also the public became more and more international in the course of the 1800’s, thanks to a surge in tourism and international business in the major cities. Variety halls could often be found in the streets around the train stations, or along the trajectory between the stations and the centre of town. It was no accident that the halls were often allied with hotels from the quarter.
Despite the abundance of variety halls, many were to be granted a very short life. Often the venues were forced to close, due to their general disdain for prevailing moral standards: female artists and waitresses tended to have a bad reputation. An even bigger threat to the variety halls came from the surge of cinemas at the beginning of the twentieth century. Films were cheaper and offered a far greater choice than the variety shows. Many cinemas actually took over the buildings of the former variety halls. In the second half of the twentieth century the fiercest competition would come with the birth of television. Both cinema stars (think of Charlie Chaplin) and television stars (such as Gaston en Leo) were born and bred on the stages of the variety halls. In 1978 the final curtain fell on the Oud-België of Antwerpen, heralding the end of an era for popular variety shows with circus acts in Flanders.
FLANDERS VS. GERMANY
Though not the case in Flanders, the dinner show, a luxurious descendant of the classical variety show, has witnessed a renaissance in Germany since the 1990’s. It is noteworthy that the present-day stars of the big dinner shows in Germany are television stars once again, in particular the current star-chefs who have grown into true celebrities, thanks to the popularity of cooking programs on television. In their publicity, the dinner show producers often surf on a sentiment of nostalgia, with references to the ‘good old days’: Lassen Sie sich und Ihre Gäste von uns aus dem Alltag katapultieren (Let us catapult you and your guests out of the everyday). This idea translates predominately in the decor of red velvet, mirrors and conviviality. The dinner shows produced by the German company Palazzo for example, usually take place in spiegeltents made in Flanders.
The commercial shows in Germany are closely tied to tourism and internationalisation. For example, the dinner show ‘Havana Nights’ is sponsored by Tropicana Touristik. In Flanders the commercial shows are also often tied to tourism. It is no accident that the only Flemish commercial variety hall, Het Witte Paard, can be found in the seaside town of Blankenberge. The Witte Paard doesn’t feature variety with circus acts like its German counterparts, but rather revue shows. It is also no accident that these revues have enjoyed a certain revival these past years; the form has even had its impact on work within the subsidised Flemish theatre circuit. That tendency is documented in a study by Rozemarijn Van Kalmthout found in Rekto:Verso nr. 67 (July 2015).
Yet in Belgium there is also more and more interest in the dinner show. A run of the dinner show ‘Bruxelles-Brussel!’ is programmed at the event hall La Tentation from the end of December. It is an initiative of the circus companies Les Argonautes and Carré Curieux, who at different moments worked themselves within the German dinner show circuit, and believed they saw a hole in the Belgian market. “We threw ourselves into the adventure precisely because there was no place of the kind in Brussels,” according to Phillipe Vandeweghe, the metteur en scene of ‘Bruxelles-Brussel’. Vandeweghe finds this kind of initiative at once a good chance to put a spotlight on the multitude of circus artists living and working in Brussels, “and a chance give to Brussels a new artistic centre that we hope is worthy of a capital.”
Two Flemish aerial acrobats, Jasper D’Hondt from the circus collective 15Feet6 and Yolaine Dooms from the company Passe-Pieds, are currently working with two of the biggest dinner show impresarios in Germany. Jasper is working with Palazzo and Yolaine with GOP. They agree that the dinner shows can be a real opportunity for circus artists, a comfortable means of getting through the winter: “If you are in the same theatre for two months, it means you only have to do your technical light and sound check once, and for the rest you can relax. It means you have time to do other things during the day, and time to learn new things. It also gives you the security of knowing you have steady work over a ‘longer’ period,” according to Yolaine.
Jasper and Yolaine do emphasise that there is a big difference in quality between the different dinner show organisers. Where one may invest in live music and reserve a few weeks to create and rehearse an coherent show, together with all the artists, another organiser will make quick work of it, and limit the show to a speedy succession of one number to the next, barely taking time to even be sure that all the technical requirements are in order. The variety circuit in Germany, in spite of the differences between the organisers, still remains a small world where much is agreed on ‘behind the scenes’. Yolaine reports that the result can be quite unfair, “because the artists don’t have the right to talk to each other about how much they are being payed, (this is usually stated in the contract!), but the programmers do share that information with each other. It’s a way to control together the price that an artist can ask for.” Jasper does emphasise that Palazzo can’t be considered a money machine, but honestly strives for a quality show and will also make the necessary technical investments for the sake of the artists.
COMMERCIAL VS. ARTISTIC
Palazzo is the undisputed leader of the German dinner shows and leaves nothing to accident in the promotion of their events. The first to the last bite is minutely described on the website, each course of the menu is accompanied by a detailed photo. Along with the food all the acts are also announced beforehand. Jasper explains that this is particular to the German mentality: people don’t like surprises and this way they know the value they will get for their money. The approach of Cirq à Roma seems diametrically opposed to all of this: hors d’oeuvres in the form of deserts, soup which gives off smoke, a steak pas de tartare and as dessert a big chocolate turd. The precise description of the menu is only given after the show is finished. Throughout all the craziness, the food functioned as a conversation starter, and fit in perfectly with the surprising show going on in the hall. When it came to the question of the food itself, the initiators and directors of Cirq à Roma, the Antwerp circus couple Bert and Fred, called on Peter De Bie, the house cook of the theatre company Laika.
This kind of surrealism is typical to the Belgian spirit, according to Philippe of ‘Bruxelles-Brussel!’. In La Tentation he takes a similar approach: “as far as the content of the project is concerned, we wanted to give it the ‘Belgian touch’; with its wonky humour, its poetry and its surrealism. The meal is integrated into the show, and the moments devoted to the meal are also those when the audience just might receive a private visit from the artists.” However, Bert and Fred insist that the artistic nature of the meal wasn’t their primary concern: “The only thing we want is to give people an evening of good fun, to organise a down to earth sort of party.” Jasper agrees that a dinner show doesn’t necessarily need to be artistic, but rather must appeal first and foremost to a broad audience.
And finally the key question: could the dinner show also become a regular event in Flanders? Or will it always remain a one-off initiative? That remains to be seen. Jasper believes a Flemish audience is more critical and less spontaneous than a German audience, comprised of people who come to a dinner show for the sheer enjoyment of it. The higher employment taxes in Flanders, coupled with the relatively low ticket prices for subsidised cultural events don’t make the challenge any easier. Would people here be willing to pay 100 euros (or more) for a full evening’s total-spectacle? That said, all the necessary ingredients are present: a pleasure loving audience, top-notch circus talent and scores of possibilities for great locations and adequate accommodation. Cirq à Roma truly hit the target, but only possibly thanks to state support and a fantastic group of volunteers. In the meantime Bert and Fred are seriously thinking about a sequel to this formula, but what the outcome may be, only time will tell…
About the author
Evelien Jonckheere is author of the book ‘Kijklust en Sensatiezucht. Een geschiedenis van revue en variété’ (Manteau, 2009) and the doctoral dissertation ‘AANDACHT! AANDACHT! De problematiek van de aandacht in het Gentse Grand Théâtre, Café-concert en Variététheater (1880-1914)’, which will be published in the spring of 2017 by Leuven University Press.