Courtesy of Heather Hayes
Phinneus Sonin and Lois Trombley
Now in its 14th year, Burlington's Spielpalast Cabaret
has plenty of sassy, sexy history under its collective garter belt. Inspired by 1930s cabaret performances in Europe, the annual production presents a bevy of dancing, singing beauties and an always-awesome band. True to the Weimar era, Spielpalast mixes in skits that address topical issues — particularly that evergreen one, abuse of power.
It's gratifying to say that this saucy entertainment has become a Vermont institution that in no way, shape or form has anything to do with cows. This year's production — entering its last week at Main Street Landing's Black Box Theatre — offers what one has come to expect from Spielpalast: a freewheeling variety show featuring both borrowed and original music (primarily by musical director Zoe Christiansen) and a spirited band; just enough corny jokes; women whose attitude is at once flirty and don't-fuck-with-me; mesmerizing ensemble dance numbers; and a slightly fatalistic undertone that suggests we're all going to hell in a hand basket so we might as well have fun.
This while everyone's clad in lingerie or costumes that show a sea of tattooed young flesh to excellent advantage. (So ample is the body ink that its various artists ought to have considered handing out business cards during intermission.)
The 2015 production of Spielpalast Cabaret has another undertone: Cofounder Phinneus Sonin has announced it will be his last. "At least as the MC," he says of his juggling, impish impresario character, Maxi.
Spielpalast owes its lifeblood to Sonin and cofounder Lois Trombley. They're both credited in the program as creative directors, but Trombley is also the "big dance choreographer," while Sonin is the "dramaturge" whose job is to weave the show together with some kind of cohesive thread.
Trombley admits that her partner-in-performance has "been trying to leave for several years," but she wasn't having it. Now, it seems, she's come to terms with the fact that "Phinn is really ready to move on and do other things."
The good news? The show will go on, with a yet-to-be-determined new MC. "There's no other Maxi — he's not replaceable," Trombley says. "It will be different."
Meanwhile, there are three more shows to present this week, Thursday through Saturday, May 21 to 23. Saturday's is a "scandalous" show, which exposes even more body parts.
Sonin notes happily that there will be one last blast: an outdoor show under a tent behind Burlington College, on Saturday, May 30. It will be by donation, but free to those who bring their own chair. The show "is my biggest dream," says Sonin. "It's the peak of my Spielpalast career, going out in style. I really hope people will come to this show."
In advance of the cabaret's final week of 2015, I spoke with Sonin and Trombley separately by phone about their history and their future. The edited interviews follow.
So this is your last year with Spielpalast, really?
My goal is to pass the torch as MC of Spielpalast. I'm trying to close one door so another can open.
Why do you want to stop?
I just, you know — an artist needs to know when his painting is complete. My vision is complete with Spielpalast Cabaret. For 14 years I've come up with ways to find parallels with the Weimar Republic. It was easier when George Bush was president.
Do you have anyone in mind to be your successor as MC?
I wish I did. We'd love to interview people. I have been able to get paid decently over the years — it's an income source I'll miss. I'd like to stay involved in some way, but not as MC.
You and Lois are both creative directors. How does this work? Do you each bring numbers or skits to the table separately and then throw it all together?
Usually we have a formula we try to stick with. Lois has her three or four dance numbers. Individual members of the dance group have their ideas. We've learned how to trim down the show. As dramaturge, I try to put it all together with some kind of storyline. There doesn't have to be a theme, but I try to weave some things together so it comes around in a circle at the end.
When does the group start rehearsing together?
Lois and I actually start in November, with auditions. In January, we're starting to rehearse. It's a commitment: once a week, every Sunday, all day. In the last month, there are many run-throughs.
You created the character of Maxi, the MC. Did you model him on the persona of Joel Grey in the film Cabaret — but with a twist?
No, I tried not to watch or get influenced by that too much. Mostly I created it, in the beginning, with Genese Grill — she was my sister, Maximilian. [She's no longer in the show.]
How important is it that the show be naughty?
We do only three out of nine shows that are naughty — we call it "scandalous." Truthfully, that's what sells tickets.
What's the difference from the "regular" show?
Most people would say T&A are more exposed.
Clearly Spielpalast takes its inspiration from 1930s Berlin, Paris and Vienna cabarets, as you note in the program. How much does the company borrow from cabarets in real history? Does anyone do research into what the acts were like?
Yeah, for sure. Every year we discuss the time period and how to stay committed to the cabaret of the Weimar era. We actually looked into using Kurt Weill [music], but they expect so much money for the work. But we always aim to balance ’30s cabaret and creating brand-new, experimental skits.
To me, this year's show has a particularly fatalistic feel. The "Strange Fruit" piece was dark…
This was our abstract reference to the injustice of black people that's going on in this country. There's also a Langston Hughes poem. We went out on a limb, not to appropriate black culture but to express the injustice.
One consistent pleasure is the band — the musicians are terrific!
Most have been in the band in the past. Normally we hire a musical director first and let them choose the musicians they want to work with. [Musical director] Zoe [Christiansen] was a clarinet player in the band maybe nine years ago.
How long have you been in Burlington?
Where are you from?
New Jersey. Suburbia.
When did you open your shop, Jamba's Junktiques — is it still called that?
I call it Junktiques Collective now. It's in its 12th year.
Who or what is Jamba?
[Long story] Jamba is the god of the Dumpster.
You have a daughter, Esse. How old is she now?
Esse is 17. That's part of my wanting to let go of things, to travel with her.
Regardless of when it may end, what do you wish the legacy of Spielpalast to be?
Spielpalast Cabaret was started with the intention to bring the dance world, the artistic, musical and theatrical worlds together, to give it all a platform, to inspire artistic expression. Since [the beginning], 60 or 70 people, maybe 80, have been involved. I see these people walking around in the community and we share a smile. I hope we created artistic expression in Burlington.
How does your partnership with Phinn work?
We try every year to mold, with the rest of the cast, something that feels cohesive. Some years are better than others. Sometimes him and I will meet early in the fall and have a really solid idea. I plan four big dance pieces. But I'm not as much of a collaborator as putting people together to make an idea. Phinn is more of a collaborator. He is so giving and wonderful and flexible.
Tell me how a Spielpalast show comes together.
The production team starts meeting in the fall. We take people from the past who want to return, then audition [for others] in January. We have what we call an "inter-audition" in February, when everyone brings their ideas. Phinn and I consider what people want to do, try to delegate and decide who will work with who. We usually take about half of those ideas … maybe merge some, change around the casts. I have a little grid in my notebook — I try to give everyone an equal amount of stuff.
You work with, in part, a crew that doesn't necessarily have dance training, right?
All the dancers have some kind of dance background, in different styles. There are 10, plus me, this year. Some are technically trained, some African. It can be very interesting. This year's cast has been one of the easiest I've ever worked with.
How much does cabaret of the Weimar era, or performance of any era, inform what you do?
It heavily informs what we do in some ways. Weimar Berlin is the overall theme. We try to be true to the era, and with the costumes. And then we break the rules. We try to make it feel like the audience is going back in time, but still examining issues today.
Aside from that, is there a theme or thread running through any given show?
Absolutely. There are times when Phinn and I have very clearly decided on a theme. Then someone in the group pulls us in another direction. It's almost a game of "find the theme." This year, Phinn took other people's ideas [into account] but stuck to his theme [spoiler alert: past, present, future; think robots].
What inspires your choreography?
So many things. I try to have an intro dance with some kind of gimmick. I think my favorite was the year we had these giant gold balls. These ridiculous pieces … introduce the characters. With the three other pieces, I usually want something uptempo, high energy, usually a Charleston because it goes with the era. And I always choreograph a chair dance. These are very personal to me; for five or six years I've chosen songs with strong messages.
What prompted the inclusion of "Strange Fruit"?
I've loved the song since I was a teenager. I grew up with punk and emo … I loved the Siouxsie and the Banshees version. I felt that, with all the racial tension in this country, and the injustice, it felt like a very important time to make a statement about that. It was saying, "Look what's happening right now." It feels insane to me.
It's a powerful piece.
Thank you. Cabaret is supposed to be a place to have fun, but also a place to express your grievances and what's going on in the world.
How about the Afro-Caribbean piece, "Yemaya"?
Afro-Caribbean is my favorite form of dance — I discovered it at age 19. I'm deeply in love with it. … It's also like a religion; as a dancer you become the gods, you're acting out the stories of the gods.
Your dress is pretty incredible!
It got more and more elaborate as time progressed. It did a wonderful job; it felt very sacred to me.
Where did your character, Victoria Mary Mackay, come from?
I always wanted to do more acting in the show. Victoria Mary came about when we first started. We had this feminist idea of expressing different body types, sexy and strong. All the girls chose characters that were funny and sweet, so I decided to take one for the team and be the bitch. It's really fun for me to be blunt and sassy.
In addition to your dance moves, you have a really strong voice. Have you trained?
I grew up studying music before dance. I was a music nerd. I sang in the church choir. I was a shy young person — singing was where I was comfortable.
Have you had any drama training?
Not officially, but I grew up doing a lot of theater. It's a little sad that I don't do more acting in the show. Every once in a while I see an audition, and I think, Oh, I would love that!
But you have performed in other theatrical productions.
Yes — one-act festivals, Lyric Theatre
, one with Green Candle
[Theatre Company], one of Firefly Productions
… Fifteen years ago I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Fest with Firefly's Peter Pan
. And I was in Jeh Kulu
[Dance & Drum Theater] for 20 years.
You teach dance through Flynn Arts, right?
Yes, I teach hip-hop and jazz at the Flynn — I don't know how many years. Maybe 12? I also teach through the schools program, Words Come Alive — a system of teaching teachers how to integrate arts into their curriculum. I've also taught dance at UVM for probably 14 or 15 years. I recently fulfilled a lifelong dream: teaching a hip-hop class with music by DJ Mothertrucker.
I know you're from Vermont. What is your age?
I'm 40 — I'll be 41 in September.
And you have a daughter…
Zora. She's 8. She's a huge priority for me.
Has she taken dance classes, or shown any interest?
I really wanted her to, but I never wanted to be the mom who makes her kid be like me. I don't pressure her. But she has taken some Flynn Arts classes, and she is absolutely a singer! And she's loud like me.
What are your thoughts about Phinn leaving Spielpalast?
When he first told me, I was so, oh my god! I haven't wanted him to go, but I see that he's really ready to do other things. I know it will change things a lot. He's such a dear, magical spirit, a wonderful friend and an amazing partner to work with.
What would you like the legacy of Spielpalast to be?
Oh, my goodness. I think of myself and Phinn … for me it's for women to feel strong and happy and beautiful in their bodies; to empower women. For Phinn, I think it's to question everything, to not take things too seriously, and to have fun.