A Zurich Dada Adventure


Ruth Hemus and Sonia Allori, Forum Schlossplatz – Aarau. Image credit – Donald Ellis Ross

Composer and musician Dr Sonia Allori recently went on a trip to Zurich to research the opera she is creating, Dada’s Women, based on a book of the same name by Dr Ruth Hemus. In this blog entry, Sonia recounts the experiences she had while in Zurich, musing on the beginnings of the Dada movement, it’s modern interpretations and how they relate to her opera in the making. 


Dr. Sonia Allori – Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich. Image credit – Donald Ellis Ross

Hello. This is Sonia Allori and I am delighted to be part of the Flip Artists programme. I’m a musician and composer and move about the planet in a wheelchair which is sometimes frustrating and usually eventful, especially given my knack for finding pot-holes! The project I am developing with the support of Flip Artists is an opera concerning the female members of the early 20th Century Dada artistic movement.

My source of inspiration is the book Dada’s Women by Dr. Ruth Hemus, which gives voice to previously unrecognised female Dada artists. I first encountered Ruth in the introductory meeting of our postgraduate Masters Degree at Edinburgh University. I was wearing a shocking pink item of knitwear and she maintains this as the reason for being drawn to sit next to me in the great lecture hall. I think this says a lot about us and our enduring friendship.


Dr Ruth Hemus – Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich. Image credit Donald Ellis Ross

In December 2014 I received a very exciting email from Ruth inviting me to attend some cultural events on Dada’s Women in Zurich, Switzerland. This seemed like an excellent (if unexpected) beginning to my project and quickly made plans for the trip in January 2015.

The renovated Cabaret Voltaire is where Dada had its beginnings in Zurich in 1916. After a rather interesting journey navigating my wheelchair through cobbled streets and with my teeth more or less intact we found ourselves here on the evening of 17th January. I partook in a peculiar gin with ground black pepper. Our grinning photos above are taken within the bar area. I sat back and imagined the same room almost 100 years before. Artists had been drawn to neutral Switzerland during and after WW1 and Dada itself arose as a reaction to the war. Dada is a wide-ranging movement encompassing many art forms and prior to Ruth’s book in 2009, most notice had been given to the male artists.


Theater Tuchlaube – Aarau. Image credit Donald Ellis Ross

Now for the culture. At Theater Tuchlaube we had the opportunity to watch a new interpretation of Céline Arnauld’s poetry as a piece of performance art. This was devised for one actor (Isabelle Menke) and one actor/musician (Bo Wiget). Although I’ve read Ruth’s book, this was my first experience of a piece of Dada art transposed to the present day and it was genuinely moving, despite being in German of which I unfortunately speak not one word. However, I was able to follow the gesture and symbolism of the language …… something about trains.

Die Dada, La Dada, She Dada (curators – Nadine Schneider and Dr. Ina Boesch) at Forum Schlossplatz is an exhibition featuring some of the Dada women artists. It was fascinating to see these items with my own eyes because it brought me closer to the artists somehow. I am unable to reproduce images of the art works here due to copyright but the featured artists were: Sophie Taeuber-Arp (Zurich Dada), Hannah Höch (Berlin Dada), Céline Arnauld (Paris Dada), Angelika Hoerle (Cologne Dada) and The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (New York Dada).


Forum Schlossplatz – Aarau. Image credit Donald Ellis Ross

The exhibition also showed the work of five contemporary Swiss women artists who each created a video installation in response to /dialogue with one of the five Dada women. I also enjoyed the film installation by one of the curators, Ina Boesch, whose careful and in-depth research into female Dada artists/performers/muses is documented as an affecting video photo-montage.

Upon returning to snowy Scotland from an equally snowy Switzerland, my head was filled with possibility as well as a hearty dose of realism. (This is actually a positive thing). I am now based in the Highlands of Scotland and Ruth in Windsor, this research trip gave us the opportunity not only to explore and experience real Dada materials but also afforded us time to begin the conversation and the story of our journey in creating this new artistic response to Dada’s Women.

Before the trip to Zurich I had it in my mind to create a large-scale opera but this has now changed drastically as I have come to realise that something more intense and intimate is needed for this new work. It is partly seeing the performance poetry brought to life and also examining the artistic materials closely and learning more about the Dada artists themselves that has caused me to alter my vision and emotional connection. I was first drawn to Ruth’s book because I myself was literally silenced for several years after losing my speech following neurological trauma. The book tells the story of these women’s arts, finally painting detail on a previously sketchy canvas. They have a new voice and output brought into focus for the centenary next year in 2016. I too am no longer silent.


Forum Schlossplatz – Aarau. Image credit Donald Ellis Ross


Still of the performance setting: Theater Tuchlaube – Aarau. Image credit Donald Ellis Ross


Forum Schlossplatz – Aarau. Image credit Donald Ellis Ross


Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich. Image credit Donald Ellis Ross


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