Soiree Dada: Goat Pushing Clown

WNEP Theater, through May 9

It’s easy to think of Dada, the furious but short-lived performance movement that screamed its way into international consciousness during World War I, as a historical oddity. But as director Joe Janes and the WNEP Theater show in their edgy and insolent Soiree Dada: Goat Pushing Clown–an hour-long mix of new and classic pieces–Dada still has poison in its fangs, poison that can be particularly toxic right now.

Like the scraggly band of caustic performers who’ll be thrashing about in WNEP’s tiny, amenity-free theater for the next month, the original dadaists huddled together in a cramped space during a time of war. On February 5, 1916, Hugo Ball, a young German conscientious objector who’d made his way to Zurich with forged papers and an assumed name, rented out a bar from a retired Dutch sailor and inaugurated a nightly performance melee dubbed Cabaret Voltaire. Joining him were German cabaret star Emmy Hennings, Romanian sculptor Marcel Janco, French painter Jean Arp, Romanian poet Tristan Tzara, and German medical student Richard Hulsenbeck. All had come to neutral Switzerland because they wanted nothing to do with the irrational slaughter of the Great War. Before packed houses, they attacked every bourgeois notion of taste and decorum: reciting nonsense “sound poems” while decked out in cardboard tubing, dancing to the accompaniment of banging tin cans and dog howls, shouting three or four poems simultaneously at the top of their lungs. Their assault on aesthetic norms included regular attacks on the audience. As Hulsenbeck said, “We did not neglect from time to time to tell the fat and utterly uncomprehending Zurich philistines that we regarded them as pigs.”

Dada was Europe’s first and perhaps only true anti-art movement, born out of the belief that all art created in their murderous Western societies–and even the artistic impulse–was tainted with blood. Everything in society had to be opposed, including the movement itself; as Tzara famously wrote, “True dadas are against Dada.” Tzara also admitted that although his movement appeared avant-garde it was “not at all modern”; it was instead aligned with the deep strain of literary nihilism that runs from Aristophanes to Jarry, “more in the nature of a return to an almost Buddhist religion of indifference.”

Informed indifference, fueled by outrage and despair, is pervasive in Goat Pushing Clown. Wholesale butchery on nearby battlefields formed the backdrop of the original Dada works. Mediagenic American aggression in faraway lands, which turns us into unwitting neocolonialists while our supposed watchdog press becomes complicit in it, form the backdrop of the new pieces. The scale of the war in Iraq is far smaller, but we can sense how Dada must have resonated 80 years ago and why people felt it was time to give up on humankind. And these neodadaists seem keenly aware of that.

Their irrational vignettes vacillate between fury and resignation, though both extremes are expressed through strident smiles–unlike the original dadaists, the WNEP folks appreciate the value of humor. According to producer Don Hall, the show was conceived as a spoof of dadaism; Janes gave his eight cast members original Dada texts and recordings and instructed them to create their own parodies. As a result, the performers often demonstrate an impish glee, as when a woman in ice skates sings a nonsense song accompanied by a man playing a piano with the lid closed over the keys, or when a quartet of singers adopts self-important postures to sing a composition of only six words: “Your tooth powder makes me nauseous.”

But this cast seems so attuned to the Dada style that the parodies become the genuine article. If the author’s name weren’t announced before each piece it would be nearly impossible to distinguish the cast’s original pieces from the handful of “canonical” Dada works.

Even in the evening’s most self-consciously foolish moments, an antic pressure seems to force the performers forward, as though the entire show were spilling down a steep incline. The works are carefully staged, yet everything seems to be banging and clanging into everything else, the performers buffeted by menacing forces beyond their control. And the more chaos encroaches, the less they seem to care–as though any attempt to change their predicament would be pure folly. In one curiously compelling scene everything onstage stops and three women drape themselves on overturned furniture as though sunbathing on a cruise ship. All they can do is argue about nothing, and I do mean nothing: “Basket brick?” “Basket chair?” “Towel!”

For all the nonsensical and seemingly whimsical elements, Goat Pushing Clown is a tremendously dark piece. It’s as if we’re witnessing the manic episode of someone with unmedicated bipolar disorder. Like the original dadaists, these jangled performers seem acutely aware of the chasm of nihilism that gapes beneath their feet. But rather than run from it, they’re content to plummet into its depths while singing nonsense songs. I got the disturbing sense that their personae didn’t give a fuck about anything, including their audience–like any true Dada event, this one is often opaque and unpleasant. Witnessing such unapologetic nihilism can be sobering, especially at a time when an invitation to give up on society is tempting.