La Noche Del Cisne: Mexico City's Secret Cabaret
Artists Pia Camil, PJ Rountree and a host of collaborators look back on the storied cabaret night
Artists Pia Camil, PJ Rountree and a host of collaborators look back on the storied cabaret night
In February 2020, I was in Mexico City tasked with writing a roundup of shows. I ran around town, trying to see everything I could in just a few days. One of the outlier exhibitions that I enjoyed the most was in an artist’s studio near Bosque de Chapultepec: PJ Rountree’s ‘SET: memoria puesta una escena’ (SET: Staging Memory). Rountree had greeted me and walked me through a dimly lit room fitted out with a disco ball, colourful lights, white plastic chairs and tables set with green tablecloths. The exhibition also featured a suite of Rountree’s photographs: documents of the cabaret shows that took place in this modest venue between 2017 and 2019. These events were staged under the banner ‘La Noche Del Cisne’ (The Night of the Swan) and organized by Rountree and fellow artist Pia Camil, the studio’s former occupant. ‘Cisne’ invited artists, dancers, performers, drag queens, writers and musicians to activate the space, bringing together a community of creatives in a safe and supportive environment. frieze, with the tireless help of Rountree (and drawing on his exhaustive photographic archive of past performances), has collected accounts from nine Cisne collaborators – including Camil and Rountree – offering but a mere glimpse of the dazzling spectacle of Mexico City’s legendary cabaret.
— Terence Trouillot
HOW DID LA NOCHE DEL CISNE COME TOGETHER?
Pia Camil Back in 2017, I was with my partner, the architect Mateo Riestra, and our friend Guillermo González (Billy) at a cantina in La Condesa in Mexico City. I told Billy I was looking for a studio and he said there might be a space on the ground floor of his family’s building near Bosque de Chapultepec. He explained a little bit about the history of the building and that he eventually wanted to do something there, but that it was packed with stuff. Mateo jumped in and said: ‘Let’s go see it!’ It was late, and we were a little drunk, but Mateo insisted.
We headed over together, but it was difficult to get inside because it was dark and the space was filled floor-to-ceiling with junk. We used the torches on our cellphones to guide us, but I couldn’t get a sense of the size of the space. Mateo shone his light toward the back corner and saw the stage. He said to me: ‘We’re taking it.’ I was confused for a moment, and then I saw the railing with musical notes. I said: ‘Yes, let’s do it!’ That night, I knew we had to do something with that stage.
It took about 30 trips to the dump to clear out the space. There was so much stuff. When I saw the studio empty for the first time, I was like: ‘Holy shit!’ As a mother of two working from home, who hadn’t had a studio for so long, it felt like freedom. Pretty soon after moving in, Billy suggested I invite PJ Rountree over to chat about doing something in the space. We had a few meetings and we created a vision for the project.
PJ Rountree Pia and I had known each other for years, and had briefly shared a studio in Plaza la Romita around 2011. As she began to set up in her new studio, she invited me over and floated the idea of organizing some kind of live performance night. At the time, I was involved with several nightlife performers, and both Pia and I had always had creative practices centred on collaboration. From January to July that year, we met several times to brainstorm how to structure the event. We discussed at length what we wanted to accomplish and what we wanted to avoid. Finally, on 24 August 2017, we went for it.
We knew the space had been a Spanish restaurant named El Cisne in the 1930s and ’40s but, over time, attendees of our events began sending us more detailed information about its history and cultural relevance. The poet Octavio Paz mentioned eating here with Jorge Cuesta, Jaime Torres Bodet and other literary icons. Salvador Novo also mentions El Cisne in his food chronicles of Mexico City: Historia gastronómica de la Ciudad de México [Gastronomic History of Mexico City, 1967]. The history is still patchy, but we’re continuing to learn about the space.
In terms of why we decided on hosting a cabaret night, Pia and I both have performance backgrounds. She’s been in bands, including El Resplandor, and other musical projects over the years. I did a lot of acting in both elementary and high school, and I have often helped out with the technical side of theatre production as well. Both of us have always collaborated with other performers, so putting together live shows felt like an obvious thing to do. The space revealed itself to be a ready-made cabaret, so we were both very much inspired by our imaginations of what Cisne might have been.
PC I felt the need to share the space with a larger community because, in Mexico, there isn’t such a strong tradition of artists working together in studios, and I liked the feeling of it serving as a social hub. The size of the space and the stage inspired me to bring people in. With La Noche Del Cisne, I always had the feeling that we were just doing it for fun. There was an aspect of generosity to it as well, which was important: people were welcome and didn’t have to pay to come. At the time, we didn’t fully realize how all these interactions enabled us – not only myself and PJ, but Don Charles, Alberto Perera and Kristin Reger – to grow so much as artists and as individuals.
PJR Together with our countless collaborators – many of whom participated in and attended multiple events – Pia, Don and myself put on all eight shows. Kristin created several sets and also danced. Singer Luis Pablo Osorio performed in four different shows. Writers Susana Iglesias and Bruno Darío read several times. Artist Chavis Mármol constructed set pieces. There are too many to name.
HOW DID THE FIRST CISNE GO?
PC The first show felt super thrown together. One of my unfinished pieces was hanging on the wall. PJ set up the lights. But we ended the night feeling like: ‘That was awesome!’
PJR The first show was so sweet. We had no idea what to expect or if anyone would even turn up, and we really just used the materials at hand. Pia made a gold stage curtain, and I hung some LED spotlights I had kicking around. We rented some folding chairs and tables and threw Pia’s fabric scraps over them as tablecloths. It was a team effort and we were able to transform the space just enough to suggest our cabaret fantasy.
People began to trickle in around 9pm. I was nervous as hell trying to figure out how to connect the microphone to the speaker and the thumb drives. I barely took any pictures! When Don got on the mic and introduced himself, I knew it was the beginning of something special. Just through being so genuine and vulnerable, he helped create a warm atmosphere that felt safe. Melissa [a well-known lip sync performer in Mexico City] performed her signature Jenni Rivera tribute, and Cristian Anaya did his sexy dance, as I stumbled through the technical hiccups.
Don Charles When I was invited to host La Noche Del Cisne, it was super funny. Initially, I thought: ‘What is this?’ But then I was like: ‘Whatever! It’s another chance to perform, just grab the opportunity!’ I had never done any hosting before Cisne. I didn’t have any kind of drag queen persona or anything like that either, but I developed various drag numbers for each Cisne performance. I just had to be myself. When you feel such a rush of adrenaline being in front of people, your mind goes through so many different ideas. I knew I had to fill time between the performances, so I had to improvise and talk to the audience. It became a new space to express certain topics or the mood I was in that day. I really discovered the magic and power of improvisation.
WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE CISNE NIGHT?
Kristin Reger I missed the first Cisne and I arrived late to the second, but I was dressed to the nines for that one! Later, I was invited to make a set for the third event. I look back at those pictures and I’m like: ‘Fuck, yeah!’ It was the first time I was able to present sculpture on a large scale. At the time, I was experimenting in the studio with wax and pigments and concrete. I made these fleshy, crusty objects that hung from the ceiling. I brought all these sculptural elements from my studio to Cisne, and we installed the pieces in a way that responded to the architecture. It looked as if a body had exploded, or if the building had an ear and we had removed the earwax.
In addition to making the set, I also proposed inviting a close friend of mine, Chris of Hur, to perform in the show. She calls herself a ‘dragun’. Not only does Chris have a confrontational and intense style of performing, she also has these transformative costumes, such as a self-inflating bodysuit/headpiece. She incorporates massive props into her drag that have these strange representations of the body. I loved having the opportunity to pair what I was thinking sculpturally with someone who brings that to life through costume. It was such a treat to bring this visionary performer into what was already a safe space for drag. I loved seeing people’s reactions. She knocked my sculptures around, which was amazing.
Luis Pablo Osorio I attended the second Cisne with some friends. I remember seeing Don perform for the first time and Yann Gerstberger’s backdrop. PJ invited me to sing in the third show.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I prepared a traditional Oaxacan song, and I composed a kind of modern instrumental backing track on GarageBand. It wasn’t a big production [laughter]. That’s what I was going to do but, when I arrived, Pia asked if I could sing as people entered and found their seats. So, I sat down casually on the stage and started to sing. Everyone went silent and the show started early. I began with Pedro Infante’s version of ‘Cucurrucucú Paloma’ [Coo-Coo Dove, 1954] and people were really into it. They wanted more, shouting: ‘Otra! Otra!’ [Encore! Encore!]. There was a tiny keyboard next to the stage. I couldn’t do much with it, but I was able to play some melodies and sing two or three more songs off the top of my head. And then the rest of the show began.
The second time I was invited, I knew I could do something more experimental. That’s when I did some Britney Spears covers. For me, Cisne was an exciting experience. The events brought together a mix of creative people, and each time was completely different. The whole thing felt casual and improvised, but with a clear vision. Our Christmas-themed show was chaotic and had so many technical problems. In the moment, I was like: ‘Shit, what is happening?’ Now, looking back, it was one of my favourite experiences and great training as a performer. Don and I were acting out a Mary and Joseph scene from the Christmas pageant. I had rehearsed the song I was singing, but we improvised our entire dialogue. It was like: go out, sing and act in front of people without knowing what will happen. It was exhilarating.
Alberto Perera Thymaya Payne, a writer friend of mine who knows Pia, told me about Cisne and invited me to the first couple of shows as an audience member. I already knew Don Charles, but I was introduced to Pia that night and I talked to her about my work.
For the third Cisne, Thymaya and I did a performance together in which he read a passage from his book that describes a character called Betty, while I emerged on stage as Betty. A live recording of Patty Pravo’s ‘Non andare via’ [Don’t Go Away, 1970] began to play quietly from the speaker and I lip-synched the song behind my mask. As the volume of the music went up, Thymaya’s words were drowned out and my performance took over. I wasn’t actually planning on being that naked, but I was in such a rush coming straight from work that I forgot my dress! So, I had just my jacket and some lingerie.
My next show at Cisne was very much inspired by my childhood. My father’s family owned and operated a chicken shop in Spain, so I created a chicken costume and bought an actual rotisserie chicken and some eggs. I pre-recorded a monologue expressing the pressure I felt from my family to live a certain way, and I mixed in the song ‘Mamá, Quiero Ser Artista’ [Mother, I Want to Be an Artist, 1986] by Concha Velasco. The singer wants to rebel against her family, which in my case means becoming a cabaret-style music star. I acted out the dialogue to the music, and the scene climaxed with me eating the chicken. It was a simple and universal story, but I really committed to the performance, and I think people could feel that I was wrestling with my demons.
Alejandra Acosta Chávez I’m the drummer and vocalist of the punk band MEELT, and we played at the fourth Noche del Cisne. As a spectator, Cisne had a special atmosphere. At the beginning of the show, we were advised not to upload footage or images to social media. It wasn’t a strict rule or anything, and people did what they wanted, but it relaxed me and made me feel more present in the moment. It was easier to approach people and not worry about status. I met people there who later had a big impact on my life. It could be happenstance, of course, but I think Cisne’s dynamic encouraged connection.
Susana Vargas Cervantes It was Kristin who first invited me to Cisne as a spectator. I remember learning about the history of the space and the connection to Novo. Later, Pia and PJ invited me to participate in the seventh Noche del Cisne, so I decided to translate part of the introduction and the conclusion of my book, The Little Old Lady Killer: The Sensationalized Crimes of Mexico’s First Female Serial Killer , into Spanish. Reading it aloud was the first time I had shared anything from this project, and it felt great to do so within a community of friends. I got goosebumps after I read it. It had quite an impact on me. Normally, when I share a text, it gets published and I never really know how it is received. Everyone consumes it in their own time, in their own space. This was very different because I was reading out loud, listening to myself for the first time in public and getting an immediate reaction.
I appreciated the Cisne stage: it was a safe space where I felt comfortable reading something intimate. It also felt important to do this reading at night, especially given the subject matter. There was a specific, nighttime atmosphere that took it to the next level. There was no distance between the subject and theme of the reading, and the experience.
Brenda Munguía I’m a close friend of Don Charles’s and I helped him prepare his outfits and make-up for his performances at Cisne. I also helped with lighting at the last few events. I loved how you never knew what you were going to see at Cisne. Never. As you walked in, you had to pass through a little vestibule before you turned the corner to enter the main space, your view of which was blocked by a wall covered in photos of previous events, heightening the anticipation.
People who were just looking for a party often left before the show was over. But if you wanted an afterparty, you had to watch the show. It was more like going to the theatre and you got to contemplate the different aspects of the production. I always tried to arrive early and get a table with my friends Francois and Samuel.
I brought these powerful black lights for one of the last shows, and we put together a collaborative fluorescent set with Kristin, Pia and PJ. One of my favourite memories from that night is the surprise show we planned for PJ’s birthday. While he was distracted with the main event, we were all secretly planning a Cisne within a Cisne behind his back. Chavis built a big cardboard birthday cake that Don Charles burst out of while performing the song ‘Bathwater’  by No Doubt. I set off smoke bombs and confetti.
WHAT DOES LA NOCHE DEL CISNE MEAN TO YOU?
PJR For me, it was just such a joyful experience to bring people together in celebration of live performance. It wasn’t even a question of whether we would do another show, or another one after that. The shows came together quickly and quite naturally. People who connected with the spirit of the project wanted to participate, so Pia and I followed our intuition and let it grow organically.
KR Cisne was a place to show my work that had real impact: not because it created other opportunities, but because I got to experiment and create and put something out there that interacted with people directly. You have to do stuff in the spaces that are available to you, but Cisne was also a community. It sounds like some cheesy bullshit but, for real, I felt satisfied seeing it come together and having other people see it and hearing their responses. And, after the show, the dancing was un-fucking-real.
LPO In the final show, I felt so much more confident and comfortable in my skin. At that time, I was recording my first EP of original music and I was beginning to let go of the classical world I’d been a part of for so long. Cisne helped me find this other side of myself that I wanted to explore.
AP It was a breakthrough moment for me: it’s when I began to gain confidence in my craft as an artist. At first, I was doing it for fun and to release stuff; it was very therapeutic. But, with Cisne, people were listening and responding to what I was doing. I know it can sound stupid because, if you’re on a stage, it’s supposed to be for people to watch. But I genuinely felt that, prior to my experience at Cisne, nobody was really watching.
DC The idea that I had to perform every three months was super exciting. It was necessary for me just to let it out, to scream, to sing, to express myself – like working a muscle. For the performers and the artists who did the installations, as well as for Pia and PJ, it was something they needed – that we all needed – without even knowing it: to have fun and be together and celebrate. Of course, there were a lot of queer people, but what impacted me most was that, whoever came, they were astonished by the magic of it.
WHAT IS THE FUTURE FOR LA NOCHE DEL CISNE?
PJR In August 2019, we had our eighth and final show, and we knew it was the last show. We got to savour every second of it and to say goodbye. But I’m sure the space will continue to call out to future generations.
DC I wish Cisne would come back. It was such a big part of my life. I invested my time, artistry and choreography in it. It was a commitment of love, art and friendship. And it needed to happen here in Mexico. We have such a strong tradition of honouring musicians through lip-sync performances. We had so many legends of Mexico City’s queer nightlife perform on the Cisne stage: Barbie Cisneros, Terry Holiday, Humberto Márquez, Moss, Melissa. It was such an honour. I loved Cisne! It truly changed me – in a good way!
PC I don’t believe that our version of La Noche Del Cisne will return, but I like to think that the idea of generating work in our community continues. It’s something you carry with you. I love hearing how Cisne left a positive impression on so many of our collaborators. We didn’t have an agenda, so people were able to do their thing, and they felt confident doing it. There was a collective generosity that inspired people to take risks.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 227 with the headline ‘La Noche Del Cisne’.
Main image: Don Charles performs in La Noche Del Cisne's second show, with a set by Yann Gerstberger, 2017