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Bard’s SummerScape Spiegeltent Is a Seasonal Sensation

Rural Intelligence Road TripsEvery summer, a bit of magic occurs on the Bard College campus. In what is normally an empty field across from Frank Gehry’s gleaming Fisher Center, the Spiegeltent arises.

Surrounded by trees strung with twinkling lights, its irresistible façade beckons passersby, promising untold merriment within.

Rural Intelligence Road TripsThis is no idle promise. For the past six years, Bard has erected the Speigeltent during its SummerScape season as an option for pre-show dining and drinks, or for post-show drinks and dancing, and as a performance venue in its own right, with programs ranging from kids’ stuff to strictly adults-only affairs. And it opens this weekend with with the raucous Gypsy jazz quartet Fishtank Ensemble (right) on Friday, July 6, followed on Saturday evening, July 7, by Martha Wainwright, performing songs from her recent tribute album to Edith Piaf, Sans Fusil, Ni Souliers, à Paris.

The Spiegeltent (Dutch for “mirror tent”) has its roots in Belgium, dating back more than 100 years. Originally mobile dance halls that toured small towns and fairs, the tents traditionally featured mirrored walls that allowed would-be dance partners to make discreet eye contact with one another and provided patrons with a casual way to watch and be watched.

Authentic Spiegeltents are made of wood, canvas, mirrors, and stained glass, embellished with velvet. The tent can be broken down into small sections so that it can be easily erected by just two people; no nails are required. The tent itself is as architecturally fascinating on the outside as the entertainment that takes place within. While there are very few true Spiegeltents in existence today, one family has kept the tradition alive.  Since 1920, the Belgium-based Klessens family has owned Het Spiegelpaleis. Bard’s Spiegeltent, known as “The Carousel,” is owned by Rik and Lillian Klessens; it’s one of nine Klessens tents that make the rounds of Europe and the United States.

Rural Intelligence Road TripsEnter “The Carousel” and you’ll find yourself in an intimate space, a glittering round hall encircled by colorful stained glass, and those mirrors, of course. Gracious oak booths and smaller cocktail tables line the periphery, along with a bar serving wine and beer. Seating for 250 surrounds a raised, central stage. The ceiling is draped in red velvet and strung with small, cheery white lights. It’s an enchanting, celebratory one-ring circus that transports you to another time, even before the entertainment begins.

As for the acts that occupy that central stage, think Cabaret meets Moulin Rouge. Real burlesque that will make you blush, or feel a little flush, takes it right to the edge, as true burlesque should. Contemporary vaudeville, with its unique blend of old-timey humor, innuendo, and intelligence, provokes both laughter and thought. There is gorgeous singing from around the world, heart-thumping dance, and side-splitting comedy. The Spiegeltent offers intelligent, whimsical entertainment that will satisfy the child in every adult.

Many favorites from seasons past are back this summer for evening cabaret on Friday and Saturday nights. The Wau Wau Sisters wow the audience with their bawdy brand of circus vaudeville, and the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus inspires shock and awe, with its unique hybrid of exotic circus, vaudeville, and sideshow acts. Weimar New York also returns with an edgy, subversive show blending burlesque, drag, and performance art. This act dips deeper into risqué territory and may include nudity; don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Rural Intelligence Road TripsThe Two Man Gentlemen Band, performing a raucous romp through Tin Pan Alley to Western swing to hot jazz, has been known to get the audience involved by handing out kazoos; they were “discovered” by Susana Meyer, Associate Director of the Fisher Center, who heard them while she was shopping at a local health food store. Meyer asked the manager who they were. After listening to more of their music she booked them for the tent last year, and they’ve earned a place on this year’s roster.

On Thursday nights the tent reverts to its original purpose – a dance hall, albeit one with some spectacular bands, playing music from around the world that will compel you to your feet. Just try to remain seated when Buckwheat Zydeco arrives on August 9. (If you can even get a seat; buy your ticket early!) Other acts range from Klezmer to Salsa to Swing to Gypsy jazz; there’s even a tango night on August 2, with a class for beginners and a demonstration by a pair of pros.

Rural Intelligence Road TripsAt the center of it all is Spiegel Maestro Nik Quaife (right) who keeps the show moving.  You’ll know the Maestro when you see him; he’s the tall Irishman sporting a black and white silk dinner jacket and flashy red, green, or blue shoes. Quaife was brought in as Maestro by Meyer’s predecessor, Tambra Dylan, during the Spiegeltent’s first season, after she had seen him perform a similar role in Dublin. He still lives in Dublin, where he runs Zoetrope, an arts marketing company, but, he says, “I’ve made sure to keep my summers free so, if invited back, I can Maestro again!”

Rural Intelligence Road TripsDuring four weekend afternoons, the Spiegeltent reorients itself toward kid-friendly performances, including Bindlestiff Family Cirkus’ G-rated acts – with tumbling, juggling, and clowns – or The Little Farm Show, an educational musical production based on the history of agriculture. Saturday, July 14 has been designated “Kiddie Bastille Day;” the Bindlestiff show will be expanded to include additional family fare such as stilt walking, face painting, balloon-twisting.

Clearly, the Spiegeltent is more than just another summer venue; it’s an ephemeral party for kids of all ages that you can enjoy every weekend during SummerScape. Take it from the SpiegelMaestro himself. Says Quaife, “The thing I love about the Spiegeltent is that you can talk quietly and interact with other members of the audience and your friends during most shows. It’s a more convivial, less reverential performance space and allows people to have fun, dress up a little… (and explore) the artistic side of themselves.”

Rural Intelligence Road TripsBut if you want to explore Spiegeltent for yourself, don’t wait; this evanescent tent will be packed up and shipped off long before the season turns. Should your best-laid plans fall through, your last chance to experience the enchantment is the free dance party for SummerScape’s closing night, August 19. Otherwise you’ll have to wait until next summer, when the Spiegeltent magically materializes once again on that empty field. — Colleen Challenger Schropfer

Spiegeltent at SummerScape
Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
From July 6 – August 19

Thursday evenings: Dance to live music from around the world
Friday and Saturday nights: Evening Cabaret performances, followed by SpiegelClub late-night bar and dance party with DJs from NYC and the Hudson Valley (21+)
Select weekend afternoons: Family Fare

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Posted by Colleen Challenger Schropfer on 07/02/12 at 11:58 AM • Permalink