100 years later, the tent is almost torn down again at a dada soiree

Participants in the Dada Constructivist Congress in Weimar, September 1922, including: Theo van Doesburg (centre, with the number De Stijl on his head), Nelly van Doesburg (to Theo’s left), Tristan Tzara (to Theo’s right, indicating a hand kiss Nelly), Hans and Sophie Arp-Taeuber (front right), Hans Richter (lying on the floor), El Lissitzky (top with cap and pipe), László Moholy-Nagy (top row right).

‘Dada is not an art movement!’, the artist Theo van Doesburg shouts loudly to his audience in a small Haarlem neighborhood hall. He also tells what Dada really is, as far as possible: ‘Dada simultaneously sees ‘no’ from every ‘yes’. Dada is yes-no: a bird on four legs, a ladder without steps, a square without corners.’

Kurt Schwitters, also an artist, is going through it hard. And then there is also a knock. An officer with his baton drawn interrupts Soiree Dada it’s happening here. He criticizes the ‘childish’ evening that only brings ‘confusion instead of inspiration’. Anyway he agrees, his opinion doesn’t matter, he only comes to shut down in the evening due to fire safety. Permission has not been granted and the room is far too full. “Anyone standing must go!”

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It is January 11, 2023. Het Zaeltje presents a reconstruction of a legendary, somewhat out-of-hand Dada evening from exactly one hundred years ago, with performances by the Dadaist artists Kurt Schwitters, Vilmos Huszár, Theo van Doesburg and his wife Nelly from Moorsel.

There are absurd poems (‘The world is a hard stone that grows and grows through our cries’), there is piano music by Vittorio Rieti and Erik Satie, and a shadow play with a fake Constructivist puppet by Vilmos Huszár. The actors regularly interrupt each other by making noises, shouting or making music at the same time. And so it all starts with that introduction to Dadaism by Van Doesburg, who reads from his pamphlet what is dada???????? from 1923.

Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) is best known as the leader of the De Stijl art movement, but is also seen as one of the few Dutch Dadaists – although he claims in what is dada???????? that he is completely ‘innocent of Dadaism’. Under the pseudonym IK Bonset, he made collages and sound and letter poems, and he edited a short Dadaist magazine Mechanical from (1922-1923). The soiree in Haarlem in 1923 – already Dada’s last days (see inset) – was part of a ‘Dada campaign’ organized by him, a tour that had started on 10 January at the Haagsche Kunstkring.

Disruption elevated to art

Dadaism was an experimental art and literary movement that started in Zurich around Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara, and had its heyday in the period 1916-1920. Characteristic was the disruption: ‘dada’ was anti-establishment, both in the social and artistic sense, and against reason and logic. This rebellious, playful and critical attitude was reflected in new techniques such as readymade and collage and in innovative, bouncy graphic design. The deliberately evasive Dadaists, such as Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst and Hans Arp, paved the way for later avant-garde movements such as Surrealism.

The re-enactment in the Haarlem hall is an initiative of the art historian and Dada specialist Ariel Alvarez and the music journalist Peter Bruyn. They expanded the 100th anniversary of the soirée into a real festival, including an exhibition about the Dada campaign and a solo performance by the ‘Dada heiress’ Blixa Bargeld, the singer of Einstürzende Neubauten (postponed due to illness).

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Alvarez and Bruyn decided to make a reconstruction as realistic as possible, in the same room as it was then (which, unfortunately, has since been modernized with suspended ceilings and orange-brown linoleum). So the evening is interrupted by the police (a witty guest appearance by cartoonist and ‘Famous Haarlemmer’ Joost Swarte), Van Doesburg wears a white tie, patent leather shoes and a monocle, and at one point a noble extra hops down the aisle like a frog, wearing a awesome hat with a steam engine on it.

A faithful reproduction also means that the audience is part of the performance. Everyone was instructed via email to come in style: ‘Contemporary clothing such as sporty or quilted jackets, jeans and sneakers are excluded!’ The audience is truly spectacularly dressed: there are men with canes, three-piece 1920s suits and hats or flat caps, and ladies with headbands, long pleated dresses, pearl necklaces, feathers and silver butterflies in their hair.

As the evening begins, Theo van Doesburg is immediately greeted with deafening applause. In 1923 the public was downright troubled by the absurd poems and the innovative music – some of them did not understand a word of it. So Theo van Doesburg (actor Marius Bruijn, son of promoter Peter) explains at the start of the performance: ‘We play the performers of the past, but you play the audience. We invite you to make noise; it was a noisy evening.’ He also explains how: ‘If people liked something, they would say, ‘Aaaaah!’ And if they were very excited: ‘Yes!’ And: ‘Dadadadadada!’ Or, “What? I don’t understand!” At least that’s what I think, I’m not sure anyway’.

The audience cannot be told twice and go absolutely wild during the performance. There are whistles, rustles, meows and sharp comments (‘What will the proletariat do?’). When Kurt Schwitters (actor Eddie Kagie) recites a long poem that takes great offense at a man standing – “There really is a man standing there” – he is almost completely drowned out by the almost delirious audience (“Shorten!!” ) .

Van Doesburg ends the evening with a stern question to the audience: ‘You know now… what dada… issss?’ The shouting and the ‘Dada’ hall almost breaks the tent down.

Afterwards, the slightly heated actors talk excitedly. Asked whether the audience played his part well, Marius Bruijn, who directed the show and played Van Doesburg, says: ‘Yes. Actually a little too good’.

11/1, Het Zaeltje, Haarlem. The exhibition See dada at the ABC Architecture Center Haarlem runs until 5/3. The new date for Blixa Bargeld’s performance has not yet been announced. More information at dadahaarlem.com.

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