Dada Culture: Critical Texts on the Avant-Garde

By Dafydd Jones | Go to book overview

The Mysterious Moment:
early Dada performance as ritual

Cornelius Partsch

Abstract: With a focus on the soirées that took place at the Cabaret Voltaire between
February and April 1916, this essay investigates the Dadaists' early performances as
flawed and ferocious events illuminating, paradoxically, the possibility of a viable
avant-garde practice. In engaging theories of performance and of ritual, the ritualistic
patterning of the Dadaists' “services” is outlined, comprising the use of text, noise,
violence, and transgression. The performances discussed here also constitute a series
of conspicuously artificial, multilayered enactments of socio-cultural contestation at a
moment of acute social crisis. Conscious of the fragility of their attempts to find a
place for modern art at the edges of discourse and “life”, the Dada performers laid
claim to a moment of genuine, communal experience.

“You cannot comprehend Dada, you have to experience it. Dada is immediate and self-evident. A person is a Dadaist simply by living. Dada is the neutral point between content and form, female and male, matter and mind, because it is the apex of the magic triangle above the linear polarity of human objects and notions.” – Richard Huelsenbeck

Marcel Janco's painting Cabaret Voltaire (1916), now extant only in photographic reproductions, provides one of the few visual traces of the unsettling and enigmatic performances of incipient Dada. It shows an animated, overcrowded and “democratic” performance space marked by minimal separation between artists and audience. The artists, Hugo Ball at the piano, Tristan Tzara wringing his hands, Emmy Hennings dancing with Friedrich Glauser, and Hans Arp, Richard

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