Acts of daring
NYC, New York, USA

In the same vein as HERE Arts Center is Performance Space New York (150 1st Avenue), an emerging-artists showcase where Penny Arcade recently brought back her landmark show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, a meditation on sex, AIDS, porn and censorship, performed with multi-gender gogo dancing and audience participation. And there’s another showcase called Dixon Place (161A Chrystie Street), where the performers are generally as much works in progress as the shows they’re presenting – which is the very thrill of it all.

All around town, you can also catch performers such as Joey Arias, who does Billie Holiday so well you’d think she was channelling Joey; Raven O, who sings and rocks with panache; Amanda Lepore, the trans diva who comes out half-naked and coos ‘I Wanna Be Loved by You’; and Darlinda Just Darlinda, a hard-working gal who’s game for any kind of show, as long as it involves spunk and pizzazz.

While drag queens do elaborate lip-sync numbers in gay bars all through Hell’s Kitchen and the West Village, down at Club Cumming, Alan Cumming and Daniel Nardicio’s mixed-crowd place at 505 East 6th Street, things are looser and goofier. The intimate cabaret space, where 100 people can t if they don’t breathe out, is like the Carlyle meets the old punk haven CBGB’s, with no pretensions but plenty of unbridled talent working out their craft. Often seen there, singer/comedian Amber Martin has a fabulous voice and great comic chops, combining them for crowd-pleasing shows, where she plays Bette Midler, Reba McEntire and Laura Nyro. Best of all is when she plays herself. Having skyrocketed from the club scene to residencies in New Orleans and Australia, Amber seems one signature away from stardom.

Another up-and-comer at Club Cumming is Catherine Cohen, who does an enjoyably neurotic act, entering as she sings ‘boys never wanted to kiss me, so now I do comedy’, then being so funny about her complicated exploits that she emerges as quite lovable. Like all the alt-cabaret stars, Martin and Cohen admire the show-biz legends but dice up the clichés and create fresh recipes for success as they whip up legends of their own. But the ultimate shrine to alt cabaret is Brooklyn, the borough that started exploding with nightlife over a decade ago, as Manhattan’s rents and operating costs became untenable for most entrepreneurs. In Brooklyn neighbourhoods such as Williamsburg and Bushwick, performers get to erupt in even more daring ways than their Manhattan counterparts because the scene there feels newer and more open to interpretation. There’s more room to experiment, so the drag queens that perform in Sasha Velour’s Nightgowns revue at National Sawdust (80 North 6th Street) are – like the exquisite Velour herself, a RuPaul’s Drag Race winner – eccentric and arty, not just rote lip-syncers.

At House of Yes (2 Wyckoff Avenue), a former warehouse that’s become a must-attend dance club and performance space, all sorts of circusy happenings take things to the limit. Dance, burlesque, drag and aerial acts make the place regularly rock. And it’s no wonder – Eric Schmalenberger describes himself as House of Yes’s ‘clown, queer, janitor, lawyer and backstage grandmother’. Also a producer, performer, MC, booker and ambassador, Schmalenberger specialises in edgy spectacles perfect for the Yes crowd’s hunger for reference- filled pageants.

At another Brooklyn venue in 2013, I sang a Nick Cave song in his show The Dead Dream Machine and witnessed the eye-popping musical from the wings and centre stage. It was an experience that wouldn’t necessarily have been green-lighted over the bridge in Manhattan (which is alt, while Brooklyn is alt-alt). Schmalenberger grew up in Houston, moved to New York in 2000 and five years later worked at Deitch Projects, a then-gallery and project space. “Before long,” he says, “I was mostly naked and covered in glitter, dancing around an East Village bookstore with the Dazzle Dancers in one of Machine Dazzle’s fashion shows.”

At House of Yes, he does an out-there variety show called Blunderland and a risky burlesque review called Extra. He explains why he loves the scene: “No idea has ever seemed too far fetched and, if done with intelligence, no topic ever seemed untouchable. It is a community of fearless talents who use their skills to make you look at the world in a new way, while at the same time being incredibly entertaining. It’s so human but glamorous, and anything goes. Our resident artists at House of Yes are an incredibly talented group of performers, clowns and dancers that work intimately with the space.”

There’s pole dancer Blaine Petrovia, surrealist clown Allegra Meshuggah, singer/actor Kat Cunning, aerial duo Raven and up-and-coming drag queens like Madame Vivien V. Perhaps the most memorable are Marika Spins and Punch Boy, who have a sting act that Schmalenberger describes as ‘hysterical’. “Getting to put an act like that in front of a mixed crowd is really special,” he says. It certainly redefines the phrase ‘give them a hand’. As someone who flourished for many years at an alternative weekly (The Village Voice, which is now defunct), I thrill to alternative anything – especially cabaret, where ‘right this way, your table is waiting’. As Schmalenberger puts it: “The folks that really shine in this community are razor-sharp, but still punk enough to proudly show their unfinished and very human edges.” Bravo.

Michael Musto is a columnist for and a longtime nightlife chronicler who has penned four books and appears regularly on TV channels as a cultural commentator.