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Life is a cabaret in Adelaide
Adelaide Cabaret Festival Mark Nadler and Kate Ceberano performing in the Piano Bar. Picture: Supplied.

The story goes that Kate Ceberano has had five gowns, all of the same silver glitter fabric, made for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. As the annual festival's artistic director and party-gal-in-chief, she's going to need all of them.

Now in its 12th year, the festival plays out across eight venues, most in the riverside Adelaide Festival Centre, with 48 Australian and international acts performing over 13 days. Centre chief Douglas Gautier says more than 30,000 tickets, or over 90 per cent of targeted sales, had moved by the festival's first weekend, and with total attendance at its shows, exhibitions, restaurants and bars estimated at 95,000, the festival is among the biggest of its kind in the world.

More importantly, it's part of a year-round fabric of strategic events based around the festival centre and Adelaide's parklands that earn South Australia its Festival State tag.

Much of this activity is generated by the Adelaide Festival Centre - a sort of turbocharged Perth Theatre Trust - which promotes two other festivals and actively partners the city's arts and fringe festivals and the WOMAD music festival.

For Ceberano, each event has its role, complementing the others.

"For us the fringe is essential, as it's the place where artists can hone their voice before they come to us, get paid for their efforts and have a marketing team help them create their brand," she says.

There's no denying the legacy of the city's history, including Colonel William Light's urban plan, creating performing and visual arts precincts in its heart, and former premier Don Dunstan's vision of his city as Australia's cultural capital. Adelaide, only two-thirds the size of Perth, has plenty to teach us about making the popular arts work on all sorts of levels.

Ceberano sees her festival - this is the first of her two-year stint - serving a wide audience for popular culture.

"We are curating for the broadest demographic, not just the avant-garde," she claims. "Our audiences are as much a part of the event as the acts themselves."

She believes cabaret embraces a much broader definition than simply Broadway songbooks. For her, it has as much to do with the people behind the music.

"The artists I have sought out are all great raconteurs, rogues, storytellers, who offer our audiences a vision into life beyond the songs," she says.

Like all festivals, there WEre some disappointments. After all the noise about artist David Bromley being the designer, I expected more pizzazz in the stage designs, most of which were bare black boxes.

But, in the end, it's about the performers. Two of the big draws on the festival's opening weekend - Bernadette Robinson's Songs for Nobodies (soon for Perth) and former Supreme Mary Wilson's tribute to Lena Horne, Stormy Weather - didn't quite live up to my expectations, but acts like Canadian techno-cello virtuoso Zoe Keating and New York-based expat Kim Smith were unexpected triumphs. Clare Bowditch's warm humour and the sheer beauty of her music never pall, while rising star Angela Harding showed how far she might go by how much she has still to learn.

At the opening night gala the host, New York entertainer Mark Nadler, illusionist Cosentino, comedian Eddie Perfect, Broadway divas Eden Espinosa and Lea Salonga, energetic dance troupe Boylesque, Debra Byrne and former frontman of Perth band End of Fashion, Justin Burford (as Kurt Cobain), joined in to show just how wide Ceberano had cast her fishnets.

Every night in the festival's backstage bar, the entertainment continued into the early hours (a rollicking if a little messy version of Stop in the Name of Love with Wilson, Ceberano and Espinosa becoming the festival anthem).

While the diversity of performers and performances is a great strength of this festival, it's a shame such a thin vein of the great 20th century artists many of them are mining gets exposed. We heard Strange Fruit and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien multiple times during the weekend, a risk-averse approach that makes some enormous stars seem like one-hit wonders. Even the wonderful Bowditch was guilty. She told a great Leonard Cohen story and then (despite me crossing all my fingers and toes) launched into, you guessed it, Hallelujah.

That's a pity, but hardly a deal-breaker, and with acts as diverse as rock legends Don Walker, the Angel's Brewster brothers and Tex Perkins, comedian Lenny Henry and Irish new-wave chanteuse Camille O'Sullivan (both also swinging through Perth shortly) still to come, Ceberano seems determined to keep working those sparkly threads of hers to the last, fizzy, drop of a fun, classy festival.

·David Zampatti travelled to Adelaide as a guest of Advantage SA. <div class="endnote">

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