A dozing contemporary scholar suddenly awakes when the subjects of her research—Dada’s female pioneers Emmy Hennings, Mina Loy, and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven—materialize and proceed to illustrate their lives. Taking umbrage at these women’s historical neglect, the scholar begins a campaign to regain their acclaim. The past and present become weirdly entangled in an odyssey that interweaves the artistic exploits and biographies of these forgotten trailblazers.
Dada Divas is composed of vignettes and interludes. Vignettes, which are similar to scenes, address certain topics and sometimes tell stories, and can be performed in different orders. Interludes are shorter than vignettes, and function primarily as transitions between them. Depending on the chosen sequence of vignettes, some may follow each other without interludes. Sometimes the interludes are short scenes in themselves, but consist primarily of theatrical actions, improvisations, or incidental music.
Several vignettes and interludes are listed below in a representative order. Descriptions of most vignettes include comments (in parentheses and italics) about some historical references behind the music or staging.
The audience enters amid the sounds of a bustling café.
(Emmy Hennings and the other founders of Dada performed often in cafés and bars, including the legendary Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich. In this overture, a field recording from a German café maintains yet subverts the tradition of an instrumental introduction to an opera.)
A Mingle, A Jangle
The divas mix a subversive sonic tonic.
A snoozing scholar awakens abruptly at her desk. As she resumes working on her research paper about Dada’s “forgotten” women, they emerge from the audience, interrupting her work by clanging pots and pans.
(Assaulting the audience’s sensibilities through noise, odor, or violation of personal space was common in Futurist and Dada performances. Here the sonic assault with domestic cooking utensils signifies an affront to clichés of femininity. Also, Mina Loy “conversed” with her husband, the Dada artist Arthur Cravan, by banging on pots and pans while he was working on his boat at sea.)
A Tingle, A Tangle
Emmy reviews her “tingel-tangel” repertoire, singing ditties high and low, hacking words to disdain war and other nonsense.
Emmy opens a box in which she finds sheet music of her old cabaret repertoire. She steps onto a pedestal, on which she revolves like a music box dancer while singing a randomized amalgamation of cabaret songs, folk tunes, and marches. The others shred her sheet music and attach it to her with clothespins.
(“Tingel-tangel” was an early 20th-century German term for lowbrow, often risqué cabaret entertainment. The name probably comes from the sound of coins being tossed into a plate. Art created via indeterminacy figured prominently in Dada, presaging later chance procedures such as those in the music of John Cage. Emmy Hennings was hailed as a star cabaret performer.)
Interlude: I wonder what I meant by it all
Mina, recorded in her twilight years, reads and reminisces.
Mina notices the sound of a ticking clock. Searching for its source, she opens a box from which she hears a recording of her own voice, and picks up a notebook of her writings. Wandering through the theater, she tears out scraps of poetry and gives them to audience members.
(Mina Loy created chance-derived poems by ripping up bits of paper with words or phrases, dropping them on the ground, and then randomly picking them up and ordering them. The passage of time is a recurring theme in her poetry. This interlude is composed of selected phrases from an interview with Loy in 1965, when she was 82 years old. The added static of a phonograph record reflects a bygone era as well as the Dadas’ and Futurists’ use of noise.)
Mina opens another box, this one containing men’s boxer shorts. She tries some on while singing of the “skin-sack” and its inability to fulfill her desires for either sex or children, also noting the incompatibility of male “clock” time and female “cyclical” time.
Interlude: Pandora’s Pox
While a music box plays the popular French cabaret tune Valse Brune, Mina embarks on a striptease, tossing men’s boxer shorts into the audience.
Shuttle-cock and Battle-door
Friends play the ancient game of Shuttle-cock and Battle-dore, while Mina describes a moment of connection or contention.
The divas open another box, in which they find unusual objects. While Mina continues to explore the box’s contents, Emmy and the Baroness play the game of Shuttle-cock and Battle-dore with paddle drums—tunable percussion instruments similar to badminton racquets—amid a soundscape of songbirds. Tantalized by the birds’ mating calls and rhythmic back-and-forth of the game, Mina sings of liaisons with her lover, Futurist co-founder Giovanni Papini, ranging from orgasm to real love to fighting. The divas begin imitating the birds while playing with feathers from the box, in which Mina finds an egg that she beholds and then crushes.
(Mina Loy's eponymous poem alludes to the sexual act and the battle of the sexes—partially illustrated by changing “battledore” to “battledoor”—as well as to World War I through its references to blood (pink) and “feathers” being strewn. The crushed egg obviously evokes destruction or abortion.)
Interlude: Shell-shock and Battle-roar
Raptors infiltrate the women’s pleasant outing, portending a perilous turn of events.
As hawks, owls, and other birds of prey usurp the songbirds and Mina gazes at the broken egg, the ladies morph their birdcall imitations into sounds of war: shells hissing overhead, the rat-tat-tat of gunfire, and hyperventilation. Finding a telegram in a box, the Baroness learns of her husband’s suicide. Amid raptors’ squawks and woodpeckers’ drumming, Mina and Emmy cower as the Baroness makes vocalizations that evoke treatments given to shell-shocked soldiers, whose throats and tongues were electrically shocked in attempts to restore lost speech capabilities.
(The Baroness wears a choker laced with contact microphones that amplify the sounds of her throat. This jewelry serves as a symbolic constricting device that comments on bourgeois expectations of femininity. Birds, or bird cages, are another recurring theme in Mina Loy’s poetry. Birds of prey are mythologized in several ancient cultures, where they variously symbolize magic, wisdom, danger, or death.)
Baroness Elsa mourns the Baron’s suicide, and vents the divas’ revulsion for war.
The Baroness bewails her husband’s suicide in a virtuosic rendition of one of her poems, using almost exclusively such anguished vocalizations as ululation, multiphonics, and shrieking.
(The Baroness’ third husband, the expatriate German Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven, sailed from America to Europe to fight in World War I and took his own life a few years later. The text for this vignette is an example of sound poetry—a genre of interest to the Dadas for its capacity to bypass conventions of speech and grammar, and instead search for semantic meaning in new combinations of syllables and phonemes. Such vocalizations as wails, cries, and ululations are associated in many cultures with expressions of grief.)
Accompanying herself on a ukulele, the Scholar sings a twisted version of Leporello’s famous “Catalogue Aria,” enumerating women of consequence rather than conquest.
The divas partake of various substances, leading to lunacy and lethargy.
The Baroness smokes cannabis to escape her grief, Mina snorts cocaine as her elixir, and Emmy injects morphine to quell her anxiety. The women’s drug-induced states begin with silliness, manic laughter, or relief, but then become darker, ending in stupor.
(All three of these women actually used the above substances. Emmy Hennings became seriously addicted to morphine and ether. Drug addiction was rampant then as now.)
In the gloom of rain and stupor, Emmy oscillates between anxiety and ennui, finding hope only in something beyond.
Mina and the Baroness lose consciousness. Hallucinating, Emmy sings of her lethargy and indifference over a soundscape of dripping water, sighs, wind, and rustling leaves. Lulled by darkness and the patter of rain, she falls asleep with the others. The Scholar covers them all with old blankets.
(Rather than drawing on Dada or Futurism, this setting of Emmy Henning’s eponymous poem focuses on musical characteristics and psychological states associated with early 20th-century Expressionism, with which Hennings also was involved.)
Virgins + Curtains – Dots = Gefängnis
The divas recount maidens’ hopes and despairs, housebound or imprisoned. Lacking dowries or destinies, their surest emancipation lies in choosing death.
Opening boxes that unfold into dollhouses, Mina and the Baroness find themselves imprisoned in a world of Victorian virgins, whereas Emmy finds herself in an actual prison. Mina and the Baroness discuss their dreams, becoming disillusioned as they realize that, lacking dowries, they are locked up without hope of release except through death. Emmy, practicing balletic movements, juxtaposes her plight with theirs. All three watch life—and notably men—pass them by. As the tale proceeds, a realization grows that the only way out is either through rebellion or the ultimate freedom brought by death.
(Both Emmy Hennings and the Baroness were actually imprisoned, variously for prostitution, theft, forging draft documents, and being suspected of being a German spy. The title of this vignette, written as an equation in a nod to Futurist practice, refers to two poems by Loy and Hennings that are interwoven to form the text. “Dot” is an archaic expression for dowry.)
Tracing decorative patterns through a delightful design, the women become entangled.
Still in their Victorian settings, the women find embroidery hoops and thread in a box. They begin to ornament themselves, but as they become entangled in their own designs, their ornamentations become grotesque. Mina and the Scholar end up bound together.
(Even in the early 20th century, many women—especially those involved with Dada—resisted bourgeois standards of beauty or sexuality by purposely choosing grotesquerie, gender-neutral clothing, or cross-dressing. Embroidery employs a graphic score based a collage by Dada artist Hannah Höch, with text from a short essay also by Höch. Each performer traces colors or patterns that suggest vocal ornaments expanded from their original subordinate roles to become main musical materials themselves.)
Spawn of Fantasies
Mina recounts her affair with Giovanni Papini, while the Baroness recites one of her poems and Emmy reads from her Bible.
Cut free from the Scholar, Mina claims her personal and sexual freedom as she tells the others about the paradoxical, erotic, blissful, and messy nature of her affair with Futurist co-founder Giovanni Papini. Reacting to certain things she says, the Baroness reads her poem “Sun Song” and Emmy reproves Mina with a passage from the Bible.
(Mina Loy’s eponymous poem—published in the series titled “Songs to Joannes”—was among those banned by US censors due to its explicit sexual references. Emmy Hennings converted to Catholicism for the final time in her thirties, and spent much of her later life enwrapped in ideas of guilt and redemption. The biblical passage read here is the Parable of the Ten Virgins, Matthew 25:1–13.)
A hidden heretic denounces surgically enforced virginity.
Emmy and the Baroness ritually bind Mina in an effort to safeguard her virtue, accompanied by a soundscape in which whispered passages that protest female genital mutilation are electronically abstracted to the point of near unintelligibility.
(The text for this interlude comes from sources that have been denounced as heretical. Infibulation, followed by binding women’s legs, is still practiced by some cultures around the world. While this interlude veers away from Dada, it raises perennial issues that transcend historical eras. It also satirizes the “fictitious value of women as identified with her physical purity” addressed by Mina Loy, and leads to her radical recommendation of surgically destroying virginity at puberty.)
Mina declaims her “Feminist Manifesto,” demanding the demolition of virginity, parasitism, and prostitution.
Mina resists the strictures imposed on her, decrying the feminism of her time and urging “Absolute Demolition” of tradition or “virtue,” and of typical women’s roles of either mistresses or mothers. She also demands the surgical destruction of virginity at puberty for all women in order to undercut its cultural value, as well as the right to maternity and looking for direction to one’s self rather than to men. Meanwhile, Emmy and the Scholar help the Baroness birth odd objects.
(Taking a cue from Mina Loy’s work, Mamafesta satirizes certain conventions of Futurism while also co-opting some of its tenets: chaos, speed, noise, and technology. Manifesti such as those by Loy, and notably Futurist co-founder Filippo Marinetti, are part of a long history of polemics in the arts, politics, philosophy, religion, and even advertising. Loy’s manifesto remained unpublished in her lifetime.)
Spring in Middle
The Baroness, musing over midlife, salutes the sun and soars.
The Baroness, having just turned 50, opens a box filled with party favors. Smearing cake on herself, she affirms her life as an artist and resolves to fly high in pursuing it. Mina and Emmy find birthday candles in another box and light them, throwing balloons and confetti into the audience.
(On her fiftieth birthday the Baroness visited the French embassy in Berlin, where she attempted once again to secure a visa to move to Paris. On that occasion she wore a highly eccentric outfit that featured an elaborate birthday cake as a hat, replete with fifty lit candles, reportedly in hopes of entrancing the consul.)
The divas continue their revelry, assembling a collage from piles of refuse while accompanied by a randomized assortment of vintage ads interspersed with radio static.
The Scholar distributes copies of the Baroness’ anti-commercial poems to the divas, who proceed to perform them as a radio play.
Lecturing from her podium, the Scholar intermingles the delivery of her research paper with auctioneer’s patter, and sells the divas’ newly assembled collage to the highest bidder in the audience.
It’s a Gas
The Baroness joins Emmy in doing ether, leading to her undoing, as Mina holds forth.
The Baroness learns that her visa application to move to France has been denied. Depressed, she joins Emmy in her ether habit. As Mina chants hypnotically about the chemical formulation of ether and its various effects, the Baroness dies of gas inhalation.
(The Baroness actually died of asphyxiation, though it is unknown whether by accident, suicide, or murder. This vignette refers to the intoxicating effects experienced while huffing ether, auditory and visual distortions experienced while wearing gas masks, and Marinetti’s manifesto “Dynamic and Synoptic Declamation.” It also satirizes the cliché of female characters frequently dying in operas.)
Emmy and Mina lament the Baroness’ death. The Scholar, performing incantations from a book of the Baroness’ own sound poems, resurrects her. The divas sing a celebratory chorale that soon goes berserk, and finally take their rightful historical bows.
(The Baroness’ resurrection refers to her historical rediscovery as well as another operatic cliché of a supernatural force intervening in the plot.)