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Night Portrait

Where Dada Spends His Nights

in Zurich, Switzerland

Yllnora Semsedini is managing bartender at the famous Cabaret Voltaire – the place where Dadaism was born. We join her for a night to remember.

«In German, my name's pronounced just how you spell it», is the first thing Yllnora Semsedini explains as we meet her. She has Albanian roots, in her mother tongue you'd pronounce her name «Üllnora», but she doesn't like that. We meet in front of her apartment which is situated in Zurich's district 4, a bubbly and multicultural borough. For her it's just a short pit stop, between a dinner at a friend's and her shift at the Cabaret Voltaire.

As we tackle the stairs to her apartment on the fifth floor, she apologizes a little embarrassed: «I'm sorry to make you climb all these stairs.» Her place is a true oasis and as soon as we set foot inside, we feel at home. She's been living here for about a year and she apparently loves it: «I keep finding myself buying pyjamas, because I know I won't leave the house once I've slipped them on.»

But no pyjamas tonight: Though it's already past 10 pm, she won't be staying in. Her day is just about to start: Yllnora is the general manager of the bar at the Cabaret Voltaire, a significant place for everyone who loves art history. Here's the cradle of Dadaism and here is where Dada is still alive. But more on this later.

We're still in her apartment and there's a big striking something sitting outside on her balcony. Only a closer look reveals what it is: a beehive! Yllnora is a qualified beekeeper: «I just felt like learning something new at the time.» The training took about two years and the place she lived before, a rural village in the canton of Glarus, was perfect for keeping bees. The hive on the table is a gift from a friend, it's designed for keeping bees in a city. For the moment, the beehive does not have any inhabitants: «I have to scout the neighbourhood for a place where bees would feel happy.»

It's pouring with rain as we step outside, and though Cabaret Voltaire is only a short bike ride away, Yllnora decides to call a cab. She usually cycles everywhere, but the prospect of getting to work all soaked is not very compelling, so she allows herself the luxury of a cab ride. A few minutes later we see her in her familiar surroundings: behind the bar counter on the first floor. At the back of the bar, the theatre company KURSK is performing. «They all kind of live here», Yllnora remarks while pointing at the troupe. KURSK uses Cabaret Voltaire as a sort of homebase. The place is packed and every single chair is filled. It's 11.30 pm now and everyone's attention is focused on the stage as the spectacle unfolds. Half-full beer glasses (never half-empty ones) sit on worn out pub tables, every now and then we spot a glass of champagne or a cocktail. It must be well over 25 degrees, it's so hot that even my camera lens fogs up. The windows have to remain closed, too many complaints about noise have been filed. The alleys in Zurichs old town are narrow and the noise can be heard a long way off.

The Grossmünster, a big church close by, strikes midnight. Yllnora is in her element. She's dressed in black, wearing her full-bodied curly, black hair loose, but not a strand falls in her face. She's delicately built, but nonetheless radiates a natural authority. Her dark eyes are highlighted and the fine laugh lines around her eyes tell us that she is a cheerful person. The back of the room, where the theatre group is still in full swing, is linked by the bar to a sort of an antechamber with a loungelike feel to it. That's Yllnora's second home, and it's easy to see that she puts heart and soul into it. «There's always bits and bobs to be fixed, it's a bit like owning your own house. We make a point of doing all the works ourselves», she says and points at the wallpaper she's designed and pasted herself. We're in the heart of Zurich's old town, and the historical rooms have stories to tell. It feels a bit like being transported back in time. There's next to no reception for our mobiles in the bar area, but we don't have to worry over that: The WiFi password is hanging on the wall, just next to the absinthe specialities. Cabaret Voltaire is famous for having a wide range of absinthes on display. «Are you an absinthe connoisseur, then?», I ask Yllnora. She shakes her head: «Not at all! I hardly drink alcohol anyway.»

All of a sudden, bad news from downstairs: The men's toilet appears to be clogged. The clock shows 0:15 am. Yllnora doesn't think twice, grabs the suction bell and a bunch of kitchen paper and sets out to the men's room. «That's Ylli, hands on wherever it is needed», a friend of hers comments, while nursing his beer. Experiences from her former job as a psychiatric nurse come in handy in situations like this. No inhibitions when it comes to cleaning up a mess. «I'm used to many things.» The plugging turns out to be worse than expected and she can't fix it alone: «I'll have to call the technician, all I can do is clean up a bit.» With a chuckle she adds: «We're on first-name terms, the technician and I. It's not the first time I have to call him.»

She started working at the Cabaret when she still had her job as a psychiatric nurse. «It seemed to be a good way to balance out my life. But then somehow I ended up working full time here.» As a general manager, she has to be prepared for everything, incidents like a clogged toilet are part of her daily business. And as always, she comes up with a pragmatic solution: Unisex toilets for tonight, just like in Sweden. Problem solved.

She hurries back behind the counter. As the saying goes: The night's still young. That's to be taken literally tonight: Guests at the Cabaret Voltaire are surprisingly young. That's not always easy, as Yllnora explains: «I often misjudge their age. You sometimes forget that you grow older.» Although you can't really speak of old when referring to Yllnora, with her 27 years, she's still young. But not as young as her guests who sometimes are not even in their twenties yet. «But they're all nice and have never caused any trouble.»

Beside the bar on the first floor, there is a Voltaire Boutique on the ground floor. It doesn't fall under her responsibility, but still she carries the key to the room on her keyring. «There's a supporting association for the preservation of Dada. 2016 we'll be celebrating our centenary!», she explains as we enter the boutique. During opening times, visitors can purchase souvenirs and works of art related to Dadaism. For example these Guy Fawkes masks, made famous by the hacker collective Anonymous.

We leave the boutique and take the few steps down to the crypt where the permanent exhibition is located. The exhibition makes you feel like having stepped into the past. The whole room has a mystical feeling to it; like stars from a skydome, the faces of Dadaists look down on us from the arched stone ceiling of the crypt. Dadaism is the only art movement that has its roots in Zurich. Being a central location and a place of relative peace during the First World War, Zurich was a convenient meeting point for artists from all around the world. 1916, Hugo Ball founded the Cabaret Voltaire with his partner Emmy Hennings. Performances, theatres, chansons – the Cabaret was open to many different art forms. By and by, more artists joined the movement and realized their art projects at the Cabaret.

«Dadaism is like a magic trick»

As part of the festivities around the centenary, Dadaism has been described as follows: «Dada remains elusive: ‹Only Dadaists know what Dada is. And they don’t tell anyone›, that’s how the Dadaists themselves put it. For a better understanding of the effects, it is useful to define three basic levels of meaning or areas of influence, which make it possible to determine three mutually complementary conceptual levels for the jubilee: ‹Dada is local, Dada is global, Dada is universal.›»

«To me, Dadaism is like a magic trick», Yllnora say and leads us through the cool chamber. She points at a bleak stone wall and grins: «There was supposed to be an art installation there, but my business partner accidentally removed it because he didn't recognize it as art.» That's how it is – the beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and so does the definition of art. «I've tried to understand Dadaism, but I can't say I do. You just have to take it in.»

«There was supposed to be an art installation there, but my business partner accidentally removed it because he didn't recognize it as art.»

After our short time journey, Yllnora heads back to the bar. There are still new guests arriving, the play in the back of the room is slowly coming to an end. It's called just like the troupe: KURSK. They describe their play as a performative nuclear submarine, exploring the borders between theatre and politics, between literature and performance. Their multi-sensory performance continues after the play, as they offer hot dogs. Their submarine has landed on the Bahamas today and the summery lightness has to be passed on to the audience. It's easy to think you're in the tropics, it's still boiling hot in the Cabaret. «Yeah, it can get to Bahamas temperature», says Yllnora, visibly amused. She grabs a hot dog, quite some time has passed since she had dinner and Yllnora's appetite is coming back in the small hours of the night. «Good food makes her happy», a friend comments, and gets his share of her hot dog.

The bar is called Duda Bar, since there was already a Dada Bar in Zurich. At the end of the day, no one really cares if the bar is called Dada or Duda, Dadaists are flexible and anything is art anyway. 

It's 2 am now, someone blows out the candles in the theatre room. Slowly, the room empties. Some of the troupe members get hold of a guitar and a young lady reveals her stunning voice. Blues fills the room, everyone listens spellbound. The world has come to a halt; for a short eternity, the sound of the guitar and the voice seem to be the centre of the universe. 

As soon as the last note has faded away, things liven up again. Chairs are being put on the tables and the last candles are blown out. Everyone lends a hand, the DJ is still playing, 'till the bitter end, just like on the Titanic. Yllnora enters the room, a song catches her attention. No one can remember its name. Curious as always she asks: «Do you want me to find out?» She vanishes and reappears: «Darkside by the Paper Trails!». Pleased, she looks around the Cabaret and underlines how much she loves nights like tonight: «Those nights, when the theatre group performs, always hold surprises for me. I just love it!»

Around 2.30 am one of the troupe members climbs on stage and seizes the mic. He announces a very last round. In the same breath, he thanks everyone for the opportunity to perform at the Cabaret Voltaire. Special thanks go to Yllnora who modestly inclines her head, visibly touched, a silent smile on her lips.

The very last round turns out to be at 3.10 am. One of the last guests at the bar asserts: «What a wonderful night with you guys. I'll be back!» The mood slowly starts to quiet and only now do the special ten-franc-notes catch our attention: For the centenary, the staff at the Cabaret Voltaire got a machine to mint money. «Miles Köder», an artist whose main aim is it to draw a perfect pike, has donated it. He's even been summoned by the police who wanted to check the suspicious invention, as one of the staff tells us. «There's nothing dodgy about the whole thing, though. At first, the police was quite sceptical, but at the end Miles even managed to win two contracts», he remarks, amused.

Slowly but surely the night draws to a close. While cleaning up, someone discovers a hotel key one of the guests must have forgotten. Even now, at this late hour, Yllnora still appears to be wide awake and fully dedicated. She acts professionally: «Let me just check which hotel this key belongs to.» Soon after she's back and announces laughing: «The hotel's in the Ticino! What shall we do about it?» She leaves a note at the main entrance before she closes the place for the night, hoping the key owner will get in touch with her and won't have to spend the nights in the rainy alleys of Zurich. Then she disappears into the night.

You've just enjoyed a One Night Portray – that's portraits about people whose lives take place at night.

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