Dada Divas is composed of two types of pieces: vignettes, which are similar to scenes, and interludes. Vignettes address certain topics and sometimes tell parts of stories, and can be performed in almost any order. 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 primarily consist of theatrical actions, improvisations, or incidental music.
Several vignettes and interludes are listed below in a representative order that takes about 70 minute to perform. Descriptions of several vignettes include comments (in parentheses) about some historical references behind the music or staging.
Amid clatter, the divas practice and prepare for their performance.
The audience enters amid a sort of electronic overture—a field recording of the ambience in a bustling German café—as the three divas prepare the stage, place props, and warm up before their performance. (In Futurist and Dada events, backstage areas and activities were often purposely transparent in order to break the fourth wall and the pomp and secrecy surrounding the ritual of theater.)
A Tingle, A Tangle
Emmy Hennings reviews her repertoire, singing ditties high and low, hacking some words to disdain war and other nonsense.
Emmy Hennings enters the stage, ready to perform her nightly revue. She sings a randomized amalgamation of several different famous German and French cabaret songs of her era, as well as folk tunes and other songs, accompanied by piano. The seemingly nonsensical text and the disjointed musical phrases express Emmy’s disdain for war and tradition, creating unpredictable passages that juxtapose “high” versus “low” elements and undermine the music’s stability. (“Tingel-tangel” was an early 20th-century German term for lowbrow, often risque 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.)
Interlude: A Mingle, A Jangle
Mina Loy babbles with her partner across a great distance.
In true Dada form, a strident interlude of noise erupts as Mina and the Baroness clash and clang pots and pans while wandering through the audience. The onslaught made with domestic cooking utensils signifies an affront to clichés of femininity, in addition to a sonic assault on the audience as the women weave among the rows of seats while making their way to the stage. (Assaulting the audience’s sensibilities through noise, odors, or violation of personal space was common in Futurist and Dada performances.)
Mamafesta (part 1)
Mina Loy and her friends declaim her “Feminist Manifesto,” demanding the demolition of virginity, parasitism and prostitution.
In Mamafesta—the title referring to James Joyce’s writings as well as maternity and revelry, and of course Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto—the women decry the feminist movement as it was at that time, urging “Absolute Demolition” of tradition, or “virtue,” and of typical divisions of women into classes of either mistress(es) or mother(s). Portions of Mina Loy’s provocative text are performed in specific ways while adopting specific theatrical attitudes, accompanied by a prerecorded synthetic voice that increases to breakneck speed as the piece progresses. The speakers’ voices are amplified and electronically processed in ways that reflect Futurism (taking on a robotic quality) or gender identity (exchanging male and female ranges). Taking a cue from Mina Loy’s work, Mamafesta satirizes certain Futurist conventions while also co-opting tenets and procedures of Futurism: chaos, speed, noise, and technology. Marinetti’s and Loy’s polemics are part of a long history of manifesti in the arts, politics, philosophy, religion, and even advertising. Loy’s manifesto remained unpublished in her lifetime.
Interlude: I wonder what I meant by it all
Mina Loy, in the twilight of her years, reads and reminisces.
Mina Loy picks up her notebook and begins to wander the stage, deep in thought, occasionally writing down lines of poetry. She tears scraps of the poetry out of her book and drops them behind her. (Loy created chance-derived poems by ripping up words or phrases, dropping them on the ground, and then randomly picking them up and ordering them.) As she wanders, a restored and edited audio recording of the actual Mina Loy—interviewed in 1965, when she was 82—begins to play, accompanied by the ticking of an antique clock and surface noise of an old record. In her raspy, British-accented voice, the elderly Mina recites bits of her poetry, and reminisces about her work and her past. As the recording continues, the onstage Mina begins to speak in unison with the recorded Mina. As the recording ends, she stops in her place, looks into the distance, and begins her aria.
Love Songs to Joannes: I. Spawn of Fantasies
Mina Loy begins recounting her affair with Giovanni Papini, while Baroness Elsa recites her poem “Sunsong” and Emmy Hennings reads from her Bible.
Mina sings of the paradoxical, erotic, animal, blissful, and fairy-tale nature of her affair with Giovanni Papini (a founder, along with Filippo Marinetti, of Futurism), while Emmy and the Baroness sway to and fro like backup singers. At points in Mina’s recount, the Baroness and Emmy react to her words, speaking passages from Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven's poem Sunsong and biblical excerpts from Matthew 25: 1–12 regarding the virgins and their lanterns. This solo for soprano and two speakers ranges from conventional singing to various extended vocalisms. (Emmy Hennings converted to Catholicism and spent much of her later life enwrapped in ideas of guilt and redemption. The text by Mina Loy set in this piece was among those banned for a time by US censors.)
Shuttle-cock and Battle-door
Friends play the ancient game of Shuttle-cock and Battle-dore, while Mina Loy succinctly describes a moment of connection or contention.
Mina Loy sits on the grass with her journal while Baroness Elsa and Emmy Hennings play the period 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 shuttlecocks, Mina describes moments of connection and/or contention with her lover Giovanni Papini, comparing their interactions to the game being played by her friends. At first the vocal techniques mimic the breathy and gasping sounds of orgasm, then move to bel canto phrases. As the birdcalls intensify, the three divas stop their game, listen, and begin imitating them, vocally and with bird whistles. (Loy's eponymous poem alludes not only to the sexual act and the battle of the sexes—partially illustrated by changing "battledore" to 'battledoor"—but also perhaps to World War I through the mention of pink, as in blood, and strewn "feathers.")
Interlude: Shell-shock and Battle-roar
Raptors infiltrate the women’s pleasant outing, portending a perilous turn of events.
Hawks, owls, and other birds of prey gradually usurp the songbirds, while the ladies morph their bird call imitations into the sounds of battle: shells hissing overhead, the rat-tat-tat of gunfire, and hyperventilation. Eventually Mina and Emmy cower upstage as the Baroness remains amid the raptors’ squawks and woodpeckers' drumming that seems akin to distant machine-gun fire. Her vocalizations turn into choking sounds that recall treatments given during World War I to shell-shocked soldiers, whose throats and tongues were electrically shocked in attempts to restore lost speech capabilities. The Baroness wears a customized 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 of prey are mythologized in several ancient cultures, variously symbolizing magic, wisdom, danger, or death.)
Baroness Elsa mourns the Baron’s suicide, and vents the divas’ revulsion for war.
Throat sounds from the preceding movement become expressions of grief and anger as the Baroness laments and bewails her husband’s suicide following World War I. This tour de force unaccompanied solo consists entirely of nonsensical texts written by the Baroness, and utilizes almost exclusively extranormal vocal techniques such as ululation, multiphonics, Sprechstimme, and rhythmic shrieking. This scene depicts a truly virtuosic expression of female grief as it rises from the depths of the Baroness’ soul. (The text for this work is an example of Sound Poetry—a genre of specific interest to the Dadas for its ability to bypass conventional notions of speech, meaning, and grammar, and instead search for semantic meaning in the combination of new syllabic and phonemic sounds.)
The divas partake of various substances, leading to lunacy and lethargy.
The Baroness smokes marijuana to escape her grief at her husband’s death. Mina snorts cocaine as her elixir. Emmy injects morphine to quell her anxiety and withdrawal. The women’s escape through drug-induced states begins with withdrawal, silliness, laughter, and relief, but then become darker and manic, ending in stupor. Emmy and the Baroness sing or speak snippets of the Baroness' poems. This notated but semi-improvisatory piece captures a range of emotion and affect. (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 Hennings oscillates between anxiety and ennui, finding hope only in something beyond.
Mina and the Baroness lose consciousness. Emmy sings an Expressionist-inspired solo of her lethargy and indifference, accompanied by a prerecorded soundscape of dripping water, rain, wind, and electronically processed breaths or sighs. She falls asleep with the others, lulled by darkness and the patter of rain. (Emmy Hennings was involved in Expressionism for many years, being one of the only women welcomed into male-dominated poetic circles.)
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.
Acting as virgins and accompanied by an archaic ensemble of harp, lute, and harpsichord, Mina and the Baroness discuss their dreams, becoming more disillusioned as they realize that they are locked up without hope of release—for they have no dowries. Emmy juxtaposes her plight with theirs, speaking similar thoughts from within an actual prison. All three watch life—and notably men—pass them by, unable to participate in it because of their gender or imprisonment. As the tale proceeds, a realization grows that the only way out is either through rebellion or the ultimate freedom brought by death. (Mina Loy frequently addressed the plight of virgins. Both Emmy Hennings and the Baroness actually were imprisoned for prostitution, theft, forging draft avoidance documents, and being suspected of spying for Germany. In addition, Hennings played the lute.)
A hidden heretic denounces surgically enforced virginity.
In a purely theatrical scene, the Baroness and Emmy bind Mina’s legs together with actual bondage tape as they encircle her in a maypole-like ritual. The soundscape of this interlude consists entirely of a recorded voice whispering passages from activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin. Though the text is rendered abstract and almost unintelligible via electronic processing, enough of its message remains to protest against infibulation—female genital mutilation—which to this day is practiced by certain cultures around the world. (While this piece veers away from historical Dada, its many references highlight perennial issues that transcend historical eras, reinforcing Dada Divas’ feminist subtext. It also satirizes the “fictitious value of women as identified with her physical purity,” as addressed by Mina Loy, and leads to the radical recommendations of her Feminist Manifesto, the second part of which is performed after this interlude.)
Mamafesta (part 2)
Mina Loy and her friends resume their “Feminist Manifesto,” advocating surgery to end enforced virtue.
This reprise and expansion of Mamafesta heightens the arguments presented earlier, namely Mina Loy’s demanding destruction of virginity at puberty for all women, the right to maternity for all women, and looking for direction to one’s self rather than to men. Live and prerecorded voices gather momentum, strength, and urgency, implicitly compelling the audience to adopt these resolutions or be left behind. The performance ends with dizzying speed, sound, emotion, and a riot of ideas, the divas’ voices having been heard anew.