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Carioca cabaret - Christina Streva

December 21, 2018

"The carioca cabaret and dissident expressions: from the ‘Tropical Montmartre’ to the present day"



Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO)



(*Christina Streva holds a PhD in Theater from UNIRIO and currently serves as Chair of its Acting Department. She graduated summa cum laude in Theater Direction and Political Science at Lawrence University with an IIE / Fulbright scholarship. In 2016, she was a visiting scholar in the Drama Department at Tisch School of Arts – NYU. As a director, she has worked in over 20 plays in Brazil and in the USA. She was the founder and the artistic director of the ensemble SerTão Teatro, a theater group that presented plays in more than a hundred cities in Brazil and received some of the most important grants in the country. Since 2014, Streva has been coordinating the Devised Theater Laboratory at UNIRIO where she develops several projects. Her research focuses on popular performance, cabaret and collaborative methodologies.


Abstract: The article analyses the origins of cabaret in the city of Rio de Janeiro in the late 19th century and identifies the main characteristics of the genre. Using Bakhtin´s concept of carnivalization, it points out the important role that the cabarets played in the society, especially during the 1920s, as they contributed to the discovery of a cariocaidentity by opening space for dissident expressions. It also traces a panorama of contemporary cabaret in the city, attempting to connect different manifestations of this expanded scene. 

Keywords: Cabaret performance – Dissident expressions – Cariocaidentity – Expanded scene 


“Cabaret holds out a challenge to the performer: Declare yourself and your talent in any way you like. Take chances. Be different. Experiment with form as well as content. Take it to the limit and then find new limits beyond your initial vision. Combine and recombine the components and invent something new.” 
(Harrington 16) 

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Thais Ferreira in Cabaré Phoenix (2018). International Theater Festival of Campinas.
Collection of Christina Streva. Photo by Danillo Sabino.

Until recently, the historiography of Brazilian theater ignored a series of artistic manifestations that were considered "inferior", such as revues, the variety theater and the circus. This only began to change about two decades ago with the advent of graduate courses in performing arts inBrazilian universities. Although important studies have recently filled in some of these gaps, none of them have gone deeper into cabaret. The lack of knowledge about the subject is such that the very use of the word is usually accompanied by a certain amount of dubiousness, mystery and prejudice. It is no wonder that the word cabaret in Portuguese is often used as a synonym for brothel. 

I believe that a historiographical revision that takes into account the performances and protagonists of cabaret is urgent. In this article, I seek to analyze the origin of the artistic cabaret in the city of Rio de Janeiro, focusing especially on the 1920s, as well as to draw a current panorama of the cabaret in the city. I defend the idea that the cabarets of Rio de Janeiro made possible an urban space of artistic experimentation that welcomed deviant subjects and narratives, becoming a shelter for dissident expressions. Furthermore, I argue that cabaret performance by interweaving elements of European and American cultures with elements of African-Brazilian culture, such as samba, capoeira[1] and candomblé[2], contributed to the construction of a genuinely carioca identity and corporeity.


Cabaret as an artistic expression

The flourishing of cabaret artistique was a complex cultural phenomenon that had its origin in France in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and which spread like an epidemic throughout Europe and the world until the mid-twentieth century. In these spaces that became home to the vanguards a new hybrid and eclectic artistic expression was created. Essentially urban and intertwined with the advent of modernity and the formation of metropolises, the cabarets emerged as an aesthetic-political movement that, while mirroring and reflecting the societal transformations of the era, aesthetically responded to them by means of a series of innovations that resulted in the creation of a new art form.

In its origin in France as well as later in Brazil, cabarets proliferated in a period known as the belle époque, a time marked by major socio-political, economic and cultural changes, technological innovations, the rise of capitalism and the exacerbation of social inequalities. The English historian Eric J. Hobsbawm (A era dos impérios) is highly critical of the name belle époque, preferring to refer to the period as the Age of ImperialismHobsbawm emphasizes the growth of power of the bourgeoisie; from this group emerged the owners of the new huge corporations (the plutocracy), even as the bourgeoisie as a whole became an “idle class” of unproductive individuals.This privileged situation stood in stark opposition to the miserable conditions of the workers. According to Hobsbawm, a great deal of the problems of the twentieth century had their genesis in the deep contradictions of this period. 

Cabaret as a genre was the result of the attempt of young restless artists to find an art form more in tune with modernity and capable of responding to the transformations of a highly contradictory and paradoxical society and system. Hence, cabaret is an essentially questioning, sarcastic, and transgressive art form. It is committed to the present and its favorite themes are social satire, political criticism, the attack on bourgeois values and the approach to issues that are considered taboo by society, especially those linked to sexuality, gender and race.

In aesthetic terms, cabaret broke the frontiers that separated the various artistic forms and styles, merging music, theater, literature, dance, visual arts, buffoonery, farce and melodrama, and combining elements from popular culture to elements of erudite culture. Cabaret is an innovative genre that arises from the relationship between these different artistic expressions and in this sense can be considered a precursor of the expanded scene. As a means of attacking academicism, eloquence and romantic grandeur, cabaret reduced art to its fundamental elements and focused on “inferior” artistic expressions, such as the circus,variety theater, pantomime, chanson, puppet theater and theater of shadows, using them in new and transgressive ways.

The cabaret essentially defined the genre the Germans call Kleinkunst and the Russians “theatre of miniatures”: art that is minor not in significance or intentions but reduced in scale to its essential components (Senelick 8).

Through the constant use of resources such as fragmentation, juxtaposition, collage and hybridization, the cabaret combined traditional techniques with new elements related to modernity and the way of life in the metropolises, creating an artistic form that is characterized by ambiguity, carnivalization, desecration of art, provocative and acid humor, sexual insinuation and the use in abundance of, grotesque, absurd, bizarre and eschatological satire.


The cabaret in the "Tropical Montmartre"

Until the turn of the nineteenth century, life in colonial Rio de Janeiro was considered, by the standards of the European elite, quiet and monotonous. The rare social gatherings usually promoted by the church consisted of masses, processions or walks on the Passeio Público (Public Promenade). The only show house was Rio de Janeiro’s Opera House, completed in 1776. With the invasion of Portugal by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808, the Portuguese court fled to Brazil and the late process of metropolization of the city began. The ports, previously restricted by the crown, were opened to friendly nations increasing trade in the colony,and Rio de Janeiro became the first capital of a European empire outside Europe. In a few years, the Jardim Botânico (Botanical Garden - 1808), the Biblioteca Real (Royal Library - 1810), the Escola de Belas Artes (School of Fine Arts - 1816) and the Real Theatro de São João (Royal Theater of St. John - 1813) were built and the city entered a period of intense transformation that, in an improvised way, tried to emulate European cities. With the modification of the cultural scene, new social habits were acquired. The carioca elite gained access to shows from European companies that toured Rio de Janeiro, increasing their interest in the arts in general.

Gradually the city took on the air of a metropolis and assumed a festive identity. By mid-century, the first carnival balls began to be organized and, in 1859, the French businessman Monsieur Joseph Arnaud founded the acclaimed Teatro Alcazar Lyrique (Alcazar Lyrique Theater). The shows included operettas, vaudevilles, chansonnettes, parodies and gymnastics numbers performed almost exclusively by French artists. The establishment was very successful and helped to boost the emergence of cafés-chantantscafés-concerts, theaters, circus, chopps-berrantes, bars and restaurants. 

The Largo do Rossio (now Praça Tiradentes), the point of arrival and departure of the trams, became the center of entertainment of the city. It also concentrated all the major theaters, such as Theatro Casino Franco-Brésilien (Franco-Brésilien Casino Theater - 1872), theTheatro de Variedades (Variety Theater - 1878), the Recreio Dramático (Recreation Dramatic Theater - 1880), the Teatro Apollo (Apollo Theater - 1886), the High-Life (1900), and the already cited Real Theatro de São João (current João Caetano Theater).

The Praça Tiradentes, once a marshy region, would become the preferred meeting point of the city's culture. An attractive space where the aristocracy, the bohemia, the capoeirasand the petty bourgeoisie interacted. The streets assumed for the first time the protagonism that they would have in the cariocaculture (Feijó and Wagner 29-30).

It was also in the surroundings of Praça Tiradentes that in 1896 the first cabaret artistique appeared, anational version of the famous French cabaret Le Chat Noir, named Gato Preto (Black Cat). It opened at Rua do Lavradio 15 and, a few months later, was transferred to the premises of Teatro Eldorado (Eldorado Theater). The founder, Miss Ivone, was better known as Mademoiselle Ywonna.  Besides being the master of ceremonies, she also sang and dressed up like the acclaimed French artist Aristides Bruant. The chronicler Olavo Bilac, under the pseudonym Fantasio, announced the novelty in the newspapers of the time with certain disbelief. Nevertheless, the inauguration of the first carioca cabaret was a great success. It opened at eleven o'clock in the evening and its main attractions were the chansonettesplayed by Mademoiselles Eugenie Chauvin, Dubois and Lisette, and the Spanish dance numbers performed by Carolina Brosio and Del Valle. In the Gato Preto approximately a hundred people were piled into a small space of dubious atmosphere, where depictions of death and tragic drawings mingled with posters exalting joy and carnival. The audience smoked, drank beer, watched independent numbers follow one after another and pretended to be in Paris.

 (…) all that is tragic in life, everything that is horrifying in misery, everything that is fearful in death - all this lives there, remarked, underlined, enlivened by the joviality of the diseuseand applauded by the laughter of those who drink… Oh God! We already have in Rio de Janeiro a place where one can comfortably laugh at death! (Fantasio 1)

In fact, the desire to transform Rio de Janeiro into a "Paris of the Tropics" was unanimous in the society of the time. In 1900, the Italian entrepreneur Paschoal Segreto, who dominated the entertainment industry, bought the Teatro de Variedades and reopened it under the name of Moulin Rouge, building an enormous electric “windmill” at its entrance. ThecariocaMoulin Rouge had in its program theater, dance, circus and fights attractions and also a cinematograph.

As previously mentioned, during that time Rio de Janeiro was going through its belle époque, a phase of emancipation and splendor but also, as had happened in France a few decades before, a time of great contradictions. On one side, there was a privileged society that nurtured the desire for Europeanization and modernization and, on the other side there was a tupiniquim[3] identity that prevailed in the Brazilian popular culture, in capoeira, in the maxixe[4] and samba rhythms, in the religions of African matrices and in carnival. The difference between the social classes was enormous with a rich aristocracy living side by side with workers and prostitutes in terrible conditions. Between 1902 and 1906, mayor Francisco Pereira Passos, inspired by the works of Baron Haussmann, former mayor of Paris, implemented a policy of modernization and sanitation of the city that became known as “Bota-Abaixo” (knock-it-down). These urban reforms moved the poor population to the periphery, demolishing the old tenements and public buildings in order to widen the streets and build tunnels. 

It was during this period that the Teatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro (Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro) was constructed, in record time, and inaugurated in 1909. In its underground another important cabaret in the city’s history was opened: the elegant Assyrio. The "luxurious cave", as it was known, ran from 11pm to 1am while its guests smoked cigars, drank and talked to the orchestra, which played American and Argentine songs. Exotic professional dancers paid by the house mingled with politicians and other locals, giving the environment an air of mystery and promiscuity. A few years later, Assyrio became the entry point for Brazilian popular culture and music in the most canonical theater in the city. There, Pixinguinha performed accompanied by his legendary group Os Oito Batutas; there, Antonio Lopes de Amorim Diniz, known by the stage name of Duque, a former theater actor and dentist, danced the maxixe.

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Os Oito Batutas. Dedoc-Nova Cultural Collection - 100 Years of Republic - An Illustrated Portrait of the History of Brazil (New Cultural, 1989) Taken from: <>. Accessed 04/28/2018.

It is interesting to note that neither maxixe nor samba were born in the cabarets but rather near them in a place known as Pequena África (Little Africa), nickname given to Praça Onze, a meeting place for blacks and former slaves[5]. The sambistas (samba performers), mainly black, were long discriminated against by the aristocratic society and also marginalized by the police. In the 1920s, the cabarets proliferated in Rio de Janeiro concentrated mainly in Lapa, a region of the center of the city that became known as the "Tropical Montmartre". The cabarets opened doors for Brazilian popular music and for their composers and performers to show their work. Establishments, such as the Cabaré Apollo, the Royal Pigalle, the Vienna Budapest, the Cabaré Novo México, the Cabaré Casanova, the Cú da Mãe and the Cabaré Brasil and bars such as the Siri, the Café Colosso, the Capela, the Café Bahia and the Imperial became meeting places for Rio´s bohemia and helped to consolidate the festive identity of what became known as the "Cidade Maravilhosa”[6](Wonderful City). 

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Personalities of the carioca bohemia: João do Rio, Rosinha, Villa Lobos, Noel Rosa, Manuel Bandeira, Madame Satã, Portinari and Di Cavalcanti. Street painting. Photo by Christina Streva.

Unfortunately, there is practically no record of what happened in terms of performance in the cabarets of Rio de Janeiro. However, some clues can be drawn from rare testimonies and especially from the lyrics of the sambas composed in many of these places. It is known that the main attractions in the cabarets were singers and dancers who presented themselves accompanied by the cabaretier whose role it was to greet the audience, organize the presentations and animate the environment through improvisation. It is also known that much of what happened there was related to the revista carnavalesca (carnival revue) that became a national fever in that period.

Although the carnival revue can not be confused with the cabaret since the former was intended for larger audiences and was held in conventional theaters, it is unquestionable that these two universes fed each other. Launched always during carnival, the revue had the indispensable presence of the compère and a thread that sewed the narrative. And although revues usually tend to avoid overt political statements, the carnival revue with its irreverent language, slanted tone and the frequent use of improvisation, humor, nonsense and parody presented several characteristics that were well suited to the cabaret. Furthermore, its preference for addressing topics such as gender issues, women's emancipation and voting rights, fads and the corruption of the authorities made the carnival revue a stage for political criticism and social satire.

Besides incorporating Brazilian music on stage, another similarity between the carnival revue and the cabaret was the valorization of black artists. In 1926, for example, the Companhia Negra de Revista (Black Revue Company) was created, formed only by black artists from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo who sought to enhance African culture. The company lasted only a year but was a huge success and launched the vedettes Rosa Negra and Jandira Aimoré, in addition to its biggest attraction, the actor Grande Othelo. The aforementioned Pixinguinha, who performed in the cabarets of Rio de Janeiro, was the regent of the company. It is important to remember that in this period, African culture also aroused interest in Europe and the main star of the Folies-Bergère in Paris was the black dancer Josephine Baker who charmed the Rio’s audience by performing at the High-Life Club in 1929.

However, the early carnival revues’ success was short-lived.  In 1922 the French company Ba-ta-clan arrived in Rio de Janeiro with its magical and grand spectacles that impressed the audience of the time. From then on, a new phase of the revue began. It moved towards professionalism and glamor and away from the original Brazilian model. The cabarets, on the contrary, precisely because of their intimate nature and their lack of technical and financial resources ended up preserving the informal, festive and improvised essence of the carnival revue. And, moreover, cabaret’s popularity was tied precisely to its heterogeneous atmosphere of celebration. The cabarets became the home of the bohemia and also shelter for marginalized, non-normalized and deviant subjects who did not have room to express their subjectivities elsewhere.

The Russian philosopher and thinker Mikhail Bakhtin (A cultura popular na idade média e no renascimento: o contexto de François Rebelais) points out the fundamental function of carnival and other rituals of celebration during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. According to the author, Carnival was a form of extravasation and freedom that had the power to break the hierarchical and social barriers and to fuse individuals into a single group providing a sense of union. During carnival, there was a libertarian inversion of values. Bakhtin perceived an important symbolic role to these rituals because by creating a “world inside out” they enabled people to glimpse another form of social organization different from that imposed by the system.

In its golden period, Lapa became a large cabaret in which carnival lasted the whole year. In these intimate spaces the bodies mixed and the world "turned inside out". The women of the time, usually restricted to the family environment and to the role of housewives, in Lapa´s cabarets assumed positions of power such as stars, vedettes, dancers and bawds.  The same thing happened with the malandro[7], a festive and bohemian type that often caused disorder and who symbolized the carioca way of life.  In the universe of the cabarets, however, the malandro gained great importance, becoming the one to impose order, respect and security.

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1 and 3 - Luana Valentim performing the malandroin Noite Incoerente: Cabaré Carioca (2017). UNIRIO. Collection of the author. Photo by Heitor Muniz. 2 - The malandroin Lapa. Taken from: <>. Accessed 04/28/2018.

The carioca anthropologist Roberto DaMatta (A casa e a rua: espaço, cidadania, mulher e a morte no Brasil) analyzes the importance of carnival in the Brazil. For him, the process of colonization of the country created a series of contradictions in Brazilian society. One of these paradoxes lies in the division between domestic and public spaces that made each of these spheres create their own conventions and rules. DaMatta refers not only to a physical division but also to its social and symbolic meanings that engender an entire cosmology.  He argues that in Brazilian society these two spaces are highly segregated and separated from one another. The "domestic" is linked to conservatism, procreation, marriage and the couple while, on the other hand, the “public" sphere is linked to the notion of progress, competitiveness and independence. DaMatta points out that during carnival there is a highly complex process in which these two spaces merge allowing the individual to experience a notion of wholeness that is highly regenerative. The cabarets, like the carnival, represented this perfect inversion of Brazilian reality and social roles. In them men could dress up as women and vice versa. Abundance, excess and carnal pleasures were cultivated. Normality and routine were violated. And the oppressed and forgotten cariocas shone on the stage.

One of the performers who best represented this paradox was João Francisco dos Santos, known as Madame Satã and named after the American film by Cecil B. DeMille called Madam Satan. He was the first transvestite artist in Brazil. A poor and black homosexual, who reigned in Lapa´s cabarets in the 1920s and 1930s and who was considered the most famous and cursed of the malandros cariocas. He defined himself as “son of Iansã with Ogum[8] and devotee of Josephine Baker”, synthesizing the paradox of an era: the influence and fascination for American and European cultures and their fusion with essentially Brazilian ingredients. The persona of Madame Satã attracts attention because of the contrast between the effeminacy of the homosexual and the masculinity of the malandro. In his transgressive performances, he blended delicacy and softness with lust and vigor. His deviant body interweaved the movements of samba, the ginga (swing) of capoeira, the ritual of candomblé and the influence of Josephine Baker creating a hybrid body that produced a thrilling presence.

The cabarets of Lapa were part of the carioca underworld. In Foucauldian terms ("Outros Espaços - Heterotopia") they could also be considered “heterotopias”. In other words, territories of exception that societies create to shelter groups that challenge the status quo, acting against the social norms of their era and renewing social ideals and aspirations. By mixing subjects of different types, social classes and races, the cabarets materialized an alternative way of life that broke the barriers imposed by the capitalist system and created a democratic environment. Through the carnivalization, they also allowed the extravasation of individual and collective tensions building a libertarian universe of celebration and integration in a society marked by social exclusion.

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Manuel Bandeira, Madame Satã and Chiquinha Gonzaga portrayed in a painting by the French artist Martine Brillard. Acrylic on the wall. Mural Morais e Vale. 2016. Taken form <>. Accessed 04/28/2018.

The decline of Lapa and also of its cabarets began with the imposition of the Estado Novo (New State, 1937-1945) by Getúlio Vargas. The Department of Press and Propaganda created in December 1939 spread the new government’s ideology that associated the malandro with violence and the cabarets with prostitution. Severe police action was imposed in the neighborhood causing the entertainment center of the city to gradually migrate to the luxurious clubs of Copacabana. Lapa entered a phase of decadence and deep neglect. The era of the cabarets had come to an end.  


The contemporary cabaret in Rio and the expanded scene

Currently, Rio de Janeiro is witnessing a moment of great interest and popularization of contemporary cabaret and its variants such as the burlesque art, the drag queen and drag king performances, the variety theater and the slam. Although several factors may contribute to this movement, its origin seems to be related to the project to revitalize Lapa which began in the late 1990s and increased interest in the memory of bars and cabarets of the Rio antigo (old Rio) that are gradually being revisited. The increased popularity also stimulated the opening of new entertainment venues and encouraged the occupation of the area by dance and theater companies such as Tá na Rua, Teatro do Anônimo, CTO, Grupo Teatro Armazém, Grupo Moitará, Sede das Cias, etc., broadening the culture on offer in the region.

Lapa and its surroundings concentrate some of the main production hubs of contemporary cabaret in Rio. One of the most important is the Buraco da Lacraia (Scorpion Hole), located at Rua André Cavalcanti 58, which is a LGBTT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transvestite and transsexual) nightclub. The venue features karaoke, a dance floor, an open bar and a small stage where performances take place. The region is insecure, the drink is abundant and cheap and the atmosphere is fancy and decadent. The heterogeneous public combines workers, college students and intellectuals. In 2012, some of the artists at Buraco da Lacraia staged a cabaret show that ended up becoming a huge success and which is already in its fourth version[9].

The group formed by the performers Luís Lobianco, Éber Inácio, Letícia Guimaraes and Sidnei Oliveira is also responsible for the production of the show which does not have any type of sponsorship. The show consists of independent musical numbers without any connection to each other.  The performance of the parodies is highly irreverent and scandalizes the audience through the use of grotesque, eschatological and caustic humor to make political criticism and social satire. The exaggerated costumes and the props, the use of melodramatic and pop songs, the exploration of clichés, self-irony, nonsense and sexual transgression are some of the elements of the cabaret genre that are explored in the show. The direct relationship with the audience, the intimacy of the space and the constant adaptation of the jokes to current events incite the public participation.

In the underworld of the Buraco da Lacraia, as in the old cabarets of Lapa, carnivalization operates in the inversion of values and in the liberation of formalities, as Bakhtin asserts. Excesses are worshiped and the materiality of the body is celebrated. Furthermore, the approach to current matters that are part of the audience's daily life, such as the financial exploitation by religious institutions, the mocking of the authorities and the gender and race issues promotes critical thinking and generates a libertarian political and sexual ideology. Thus, one can consider the cabaret Buraco da Lacraia as a place of production of urban subjectivity of dissident expression.

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The actors Luis Lobianco and Leticia Guimarães performing a number of political criticism in the show Buraco da Lacraia Cabaré on Ice (2014-2015). Collection of the group. Photo by Carla Ferraz.

Another important center of contemporary cabaret production in the city of Rio is the Teatro Rival (Rival Theater), in the heart of Cinelândia. The theater founded more than eighty years ago was one of the main poles of the revues. Some of the names of the cabaret tradition in Rio de Janeiro, such as Grande Otelo, Oscarito and Dercy Gonçalves performed on its stage. Currently, the granddaughter of the founder Américo Leal, the actress Leandra Leal, runs the theater. The presentations include several cabaret shows such as Cabaré Diferentão, Rival Rebolado and Divinas Divas. This last one generated the documentary of the same name directed by Leal to honor icons of the first generation of transvestite artists in Brazil.

Unlike the Buraco da Lacraia, the Teatro Rival is a medium-sized theater with a spacious stage, sophisticated light and sound equipment, table service, expensive tickets and drinks and a more elite audience. The cabaret shows there, although also inspired by the tradition of the revues, are more related to those of the 1940s and 1950s, its most luxurious and glamorous period. The show Divinas Divas (Divine Divas), for example, gathers in its original cast the transvestite artists Rogéria, Divina Valéria, Jane Di Castro, Camille K, Fujika de Holliday, Eloína dos Leopardos, Marquesa and Brigitte de Búzios, all of whom performed in the theater during the military dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, when the severe censorship prohibited political criticism and practically extinguished the revues, many theaters, such as the Teatro Rival, managed to remain open thanks to the shows of transvestite artists.

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1 - Cast of Cabaré Diferentão. Teatro Rival. Collection of Isabel Chavarri. Photo by Enzo Gostolli. 2 and 3 - Isabel Chavarri performing a burlesque number. Teatro Rival. Collection of Isabel Chavarri. Photo by Enzo Gostolli. 4 - As Divinas Divas. Brigitte de Búzios, Camille K, Divina Valeria, Rogéria, Jane Di Castro, Fujika de Hollyday, Eloína dos Leopardos and Marquesa. Available at: <>. Accessed 04/28/2018.

The Divinas Divas show is composed of independent numbers that include singing, dancing, improvisation, storytelling and lip-synching which are intertwined with personal testimonies of the life history of the performers. The soundtrack includes national rhythms, such as the samba, the bossa novaand the boleromixed with French and American classics. Through the personal statements of these performers, who carry in their own bodies the symbols of struggle, the show reveals the paradox of the deviant subject during the Brazilian military dictatorship. While, on the one hand, they had to face prejudice, social discrimination and the stigma of madness and repression, on the other hand, they found glory and success on national and often even European stages.

It is interesting to note that although the performances of these transvestite artists do not contain elements of direct political activism, the simple fact of them being on the stage shining and telling their stories of survival is a political act in itself. By narrating in their discursive multiplicity questions of the LGBTT universe, these artists expand the reality of the typical Brazilian family and increase its repertoire of reflections. Their testimonies are also powerful because they recover the memory of one of the cruelest periods in the history of Brazil.

Another resident artist in the Teatro Rival is the performer Isabel Chavarri, known as Delirious Fenix, who has been researching contemporary burlesque for several years. Chavarri performs in cabarets and at international burlesque festivals, in addition to producing her own festival named Yes, nos temos Burlesco (Yes, we have Burlesque). In one of her numbers, Chavarri performs a striptease while voraciously feasting on a can of condensed milk. In a society that usually operates in the restraint and the control, Chavarri proposes the inversion of the values ​​through the cult of excess, extravagance, and pleasure. Her libertarian performances denounce the various mechanisms of mass culture oppression and the aesthetic standards currently in force in society.

Chavarri, who is a lesbian and a LGBTT activist, exalts the representativeness of the non-normative body of women through an action of resistance and empowerment that challenges patriarchal society. Like the buffoon, Chavarri uses her fat body with sensuality, lust and desire to break the imposed social paradigms.

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Cast of the show Rival Rebolado. Collection of Isabel Chavarri. Photo by Maira Barillo.

The headquarters of the Compahia Mystérios e Novidades, in the heart of the Pequena África, is another hub of contemporary cabaret in Rio. The popular theater group has in its curriculum more than a hundred cabaret numbers created throughout its extensive artistic trajectory. In 2016, the company produced the show Cabaré Mystico that brought together old numbers of their repertoire and new creations inspired by the tradition of the variety theater and the circus. 

The Cabaré Mystico has a very different style from the other cabaret shows analyzed so far since issues of sexuality and gender do not occupyaprominent place on the stage. The focus of the narrative is the origin of the port region of Rio de Janeiro, where the group's headquarters is located. Black and white performers present a series of independent numbers that explore techniques and elements of the old cabarets and circuses, such as live puppets, ventriloquism, illusionism, can-can dancing, contortionism, acrobatics, stilts, pierrot and columbine, parodies of film and songs, physical comedy, lip-synching,grammelottableau vivant, etc. 

By telling the story of that part of the city through the voice of the oppressed, the Cabaré Mystico challenges and subverts the official narrative and recalls the memory of a forgotten place full of symbolism. In fact, the act of cultural occupation of that disadvantaged region is by itself an act of resistance. In addition, through the investigation of elements of black popular culture, such as the universe of candomblé and capoeira, the performers explore visceral and animal movements that work in the articulation between dance, pantomime, circus and theater. Thus, Cabaré Mystico resembles a ritualistic performance that, evoking the tradition and the memory of black people, makes a truly Brazilian identity emerge on stage.

Ultimately, five years ago, the Cabaré Incoerente (Incoherent Cabaret) was founded at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro - UNIRIO. The project is dedicated to research of the cabaret genre in two parallel and interconnected ways. The theoretical part investigates the complex phenomenon that was the emergence of European cabaret in the late nineteenth century. Taking into account historical, aesthetic and cultural aspects, it seeks to identify the main characteristics of the genre and to understand its development and diversification over the last two centuries in various parts of the world. At the same time, the practical part of the project, which takes place in the rehearsal room, aims to buid understanding of cabaret as a form of expression through artistic experimentation.

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1 - Luana Vitor and Bárbara Cristina (background) in Noite Incoerente: Cabaré Carioca (2017). UNIRIO. Collection of the author. Photo by Heitor Muniz. 2 - Felipe Carreiro in Noite Incoerente: Cabaré Carioca (2017). UNIRIO. Collection of the author. Photo by Heitor Muniz.

The pedagogy, in constant movement, begins with seminars and theoretical lessons that provide the historical contextualization and analyze the main characteristic of the cabaret genre. The student researchers do an activity called the "evocation of the dead" which puts them into contact with the tradition of cabaret through the study of a chosen performance artist. Then, the students practice a series of exercises and dynamics that were built over the years to emphasize physicality and to explore various aspects of the genre such as its expanded body and its exacerbated theatricality.

In a second moment, the students immerse themselves in a journey of discovery of the cabareta that inhabits the interior of every artist. By working with contrasting personality traits, they seek to create their own persona[10]. From them on, a process of creating begins that interweaves three spheres: the questioning actor, the composer and the player (Por um ator-provocador e um professor-criador: uma pesquisa-ação sobre a performance de cabaré). The sphere of the questioning actor looks inward, seeking current issues that interest him and that could serve as raw material for the creation of a cabaret number. The sphere of the composer looks out, seeking techniques related to the tradition of cabaret that could aesthetically support the work of composition, which develops through scripting and a continuous process of improvisation. Finally, the player's sphere looks at the other, and refers to the maturing phase of the work in which the performer establishes a dialogical relationship with the audience in the open rehearsals and presentations. The aim of this process is to approach the concept of a ator-provocador (provocateur actor), which is a performer who takes a stand regarding the neuralgic themes of the society, produces his own art and stays in tune with contemporaneity.

4- Christine J

Cast of the Noite Incoerente: Cabaré Carioca (2017). UNIRIO. Collection of the author. Photo by Heitor Muniz.

Over the last five years, the project Cabaré Incoerente has involved more than a hundred artists among researchers, teachers, students and collaborators. Three cabaret shows were produced as well as approximately twenty editions of the Noites Incoerentes de Cabaré (Incoherent Cabaret Nights). These nights bring together independent numbers produced throughout the process and address a variety of current issues involving political criticism, social satire, gender, race and sexuality questions, female empowerment and the rescue of the veiled history of the city. Many of these numbers have often been presented in other establishments, contributing to the creation of a network of cabaret performers in the city of Rio de Janeiro and in the rest of the country.

4- Christine k

1 - Juliana Thiré in Cabaré Phoenix (2018). International Theater Festival of Campinas. Collection of the author. Photo by Danillo Sabino. 2 - Julia Bravo in Noite Incoerente de Cabaré (2016). Integrated Theater Festival of UNIRIO. Collection of the author. Photo by Heitor Muniz. 3 - Juliana Cardoso and Vinicius Lavall (head) in Noite Incoerente: ser ou não ser  (2017). UNIRIO. Collection of the author. Photo by Heitor Muniz. 4 - Vinícius César as master of ceremonies in Noite Incoerente de Cabaré (2016). Integrated Theater Festival of UNIRIO. Collection of the author. Photo by Júlia Viana.


Final considerations

The complex history of cabaret in Brazil has yet to be unveiled especially in terms of performance. However, it is hoped that this article has contributed to clarify some issues on the subject. First of all, it is undeniable that the cabaret artistique arrived in the country in the last years of the nineteenth century as a model imported from Europe and that sought to respond to the desire of the carioca society to become the "Paris of the Tropics". Secondly, it was in the 1920s that a fusion between this imported European culture and some typical elements of the native culture took place on the national stage, especially through the incorporation of Brazilian popular music, the discovery of the capoeira and samba movements of and the valorization of other elements of the Afro-Brazilian culture, such as candomblé.

This anthropophagic movement that also included the revues and other art forms, such as the theater of variety and the circus, in the cabarets was even more intensified. As diversified and carnivalized territories connected to the underworld, the cabarets opened space for marginalized and excluded subjects, such as the malandros, prostitutes, homosexuals and transvestites to express themselves. With their anarchic and libertarian nature, they created a “world inside out” in which the limits imposed by good customs were violated and the range of issues raised in the cariocastages was expanded. Thus, by welcoming multiple voices, the cabarets diversified the narratives and contributed to the construction of a festive and mixed-race carioca identity.

It is believed that one of the reasons for the proliferation and popularity of cabaret shows in Rio de Janeiro nowadays can be explained by the fact that the genre is committed to the present and, despite its variety, shares an interest in the debate on ethnic-racial, gender and sexuality issues. By being on the fringes of conventional theater, cabaret artists usually work without any form of sponsorship, taking full responsibility for the production of their own artwork.

Currently, we are going through a period of deep political and economic crisis in Brazil, marked by high unemployment rates, the worsening of social inequality, cuts in public welfare programs and the reduction of labor rights. Some of the consequences of this sad scenario are the political radicalization with the emergence of extreme right movements and the explosion of urban violence. The "wonderful city" has in recent years become the "city of contradictions". It is enough to say that we hosted the Confederations Cup in 2014, the World Cup in 2015 and the Olympic Games in 2016. Concomitantly, we went through the impeachment of the President Dilma Rousseff and the bankruptcy of the State of Rio de Janeiro, which in the following year delayed the payment of more than two hundred thousand employees and pensioners for more than six months.

The unemployment rates in the state have reached historic records while rampant corruption led the former governor Sergio Cabral and several of his employees to jail. Organized crime and militias took control of various parts of the city. On the tail of this barbarism, numerous theaters were closed or sold, many of them being turned into religious temples. The already insufficient policies of incentive for the arts were slashed and sponsorships were suspended indefinitely. In March 2018, Marielle Franco[11], councilwoman of Rio de Janeiro was executed by four shots to her head in the center of the city in a clear attitude of retaliation against community leaders.

There is no doubt that we are going through dark times, marked by the increase of social inequalities and the emergence of reactionary movements. It is worth remembering that cabaret was an art form that flourished in similar times. As a "poetics of the opposites" (L'or et le Noir) the cabaret is an art form related to resistance and perhaps, above all, to survival. Therefore, it is no wonder that the interest in the genre is coming back strongly here about.

4- Christine L

Endi Vasconcelos performing the number “À pátria A(r)mada” in Noite Incoerente de Cabaré (2015). UNIRIO. Collection of the author. Photo by Heitor Muniz.



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[1] Capoeirais a Brazilian cultural manifestation that mixes music, dance and fighting. Descendants of African slaves in Brazil developed it.

[2] Candomblé is an Afro-American religion practiced mainly in Brazil.

[3] Expression commonly used to portray the native culture.

[4] Maxixeis a Brazilian rhythm that was the forerunner of samba.

[5] Amateur musicians and anonymous composers gathered mainly at the house of Tia Ciata, located at Rua Visconde de Itaúna, 117. In festive meetings attended by “bambas”(first-rate performers), such as Pixinguinha, Donga, Heitor dos Prazeres, João da Baiana, Sinhô and Mauro de Almeida the samba was born, a national rhythm that originated from the maxixe.

[6] The anthem of the city of Rio de Janeiro called “Cidade Maravilhosa” (WonderfulCity) was originally a march composed by André Filho and arranged by Silvia Sobreira for the carnival of 1935.

[7] The malandro type was exploited by Walt Disney in the 1940s to inspire the creation of the character Joe Carioca, a clever parrot, that always escapes trouble in a cariocaway. 

[8] Iansã and Ogum are the names of two of the Orishas of candomblé. In this African-Brazilian religion Iansã is considered the queen of the winds and Ogum the warrior.

[9] They are: Buraco da Lacraia Dance Show, Buraco da Lacraia Cabaré On Ice, Buraco da Lacraia Opera House ande Buraco da Lacraia Dejavú.

[10] Personais an Italian word derived from the Latin, which means mask. In the pedagogy of the Incoherent Cabaret, persona is neither the actor nor someone outside of him. It is something that stands between the actor and the character, like a mask.   

[11] Ms. Franco, a political and civil rights activist, won the fifth highest vote total of approximately 1500 candidates in the 2016 municipal elections.


La escena expandida ~ ISBN: 978-1-7320472-2-8 

Ediciones KARPACal State-Los Ángeles y REVISTA RASCUNHOS/GEAC, Universidad Federal de Uberlandia.

La reproducción total o parcial del presente libro es permitida siempre y cuando se citen el autor y la fuente.