Cabaret Voltaire

Ball reciting sound poem, Cabaret Voltaire. Cubist-influenced costume.

Familiar with this one? I had never heard of Cabaret Voltaire until recently. Founded in Zurich in February 1916 by German refugee Hugo Ball, the Cabaret Voltaire was a venue for literary soirées and cabarets. A simple room above the Meierei Cafe, the Cabaret Voltaire was named after the French Enlightenment writer and philosopher.

Within only a few weeks of opening to the public, an inner circle of artists had formed to collaborate with Ball developing the evening performances. For a mere six months, the Cabaret Voltaire became home for a range of artists, most arriving with political and artistic agendas, but all coordinating to become responsible for performance works:

  • Hugo Ball (poetry, piano)
  • Emmy Hennings (singing, dancing)
  • Tristan Tzara (poetry)
  • Marcel Janco (masks, costumes)
  • Jean Arp (painting)
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp (dancing, choreographing, painting)
  • Richard Huelsenbeck

Characteristics of Cabaret Voltaire were:

  • an attack on the bourgeois (middle class)
  • outrage at the futility of war (in the midst of WWI)
  • limited reliance on conventional use of language (words)
  • avant-garde and experimental in style
  • spoken word
  • sound poetry
  • movement
  • symbolic costumes, props and scenery (often adhering to the principles of Cubism and Dadaism)
  • music (piano)
  • unconventional dancing

Nightly cabaret performances and readings were so unorthodox, their signature became a style of its own. And so, the form Cabaret Voltaire was born and along with it came the origins of the Dada movement in the arts.

(Here is a an explanation of what constitutes a sound poem with two audio examples from artists involved in Dadaism in Germany.)

Note: as students of theatre will access this post for study purposes, Wikipedia links have been included as a launching pad for further research.

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