Tragic story of striptease in dance

Mata Hari will open to an already sold-out premiere at the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam on Saturday.
Mata Hari will open to an already sold-out premiere at the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam on Saturday.PHOTO: YOUTUBE

Femme fatale Mata Hari, who was executed in World War I for allegedly spying for Germany, comes to life in new ballet

AMSTERDAM • Nearly a century after she was shot as an alleged spy, the story of the world's ultimate femme fatale, Mata Hari, is to be staged for the first time as a ballet in her native Netherlands.

Mata Hari will open to an already sold-out premiere at the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam on Saturday, aiming to bring to life through dance the woman whose name has become synonymous with unbridled sensuality and, ultimately, fatal betrayal.

Frisian-born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, known by her stage name Mata Hari, was executed by a French firing squad on Oct 15, 1917 after being accused of spying for Germany during World War I. She was just 41.

In the years before the war, her daring exotic striptease act had brought her notoriety, fame and adoration and she is widely regarded as one of the world's first exotic dancers.

Her Oriental "sacred dances" act in pre-war Parisian halls pushed the boundaries of the buttoned- down mores of the late Victorian era and often saw her stripping to little more than a bejewelled brassiere and a silk veil - making her an overnight sensation in the French capital and in Europe.

Now her story is being told "en pointe" for the first time.

Ted Brandsen, Dutch National Ballet director and the show's choreographer, said: "I wanted to make a dramatic ballet and I was looking for a subject matter to create dance, so there had to be a connection with dance. Mata Hari was a person who fascinated me and she was Dutch."

The idea of creating a major new ballet began four years ago and it came to life when he shared his plans with Grammy-nominated British composer Tarik O'Regan.

More than 60 dancers will perform during the two-hour production featuring a kaleidoscope of experiences from Mata Hari's life.

Much of the ballet is set in Paris, where she kept a string of lovers said to include famous Italian composer Giacomo Puccini.

"Much like Mata Hari had a fast-paced life, so we want to tell her story in a fast-paced way on stage," said Brandsen.

Complementing the dance, is a wardrobe of more than 300 lavish costumes designed by Francois-Noel Cherpin, who began working on the designs three years ago.

Principal dancer, Russian ballerina Anna Tsygankova, glided effortlessly through rehearsals.

Tsygankova, who trained at the Bolshoi ballet, said between sessions: "To touch upon her life story is a great opportunity for me to get to know Mata Hari better. She is an enigma to me. Was she just a dancer? Was she really a spy or a victim of her circumstances?"

After a rancorous divorce from a Dutch officer in the colonial army left Zelle penniless, she fled to Paris in 1904 to start a new life.

There she quickly reinvented herself as Mata Hari, an Indonesian word for "sun", and adopted Javanese dancing in an erotic act that often left little to the imagination.

Fame of her "exotic beauty" quickly spread across Europe and, almost overnight, she became a celebrity, who also raised eyebrows with her many affairs.

"She went to Paris and completely reinvented herself. That idea is what intrigues me about her," said Brandsen. "She became comparable to somebody like Madonna or Lady Gaga today. "

By 1914, however, her popularity was waning and she found herself in Berlin when war broke out.

She was recruited by the Germans to spy on France and Britain. But today, it is widely believed she never really took the deadly business of spying seriously, but rather agreed because of the money - and the glamour.

After trying to reach the front to meet a young Russian officer, her lover at the time, she was arrested and charged with being a double agent and was shot in the Parisian suburb of Vincennes.

Her iconic status as the ultimate femme fatale was cemented in 1931 when Swedish actress Greta Garbo played her in the film, Mata Hari.

Brandsen and Tsygankova say they are telling a story of a freespirited woman who got caught up in a changing world she did not understand.

On the day of her execution, Mata Hari is said to have declined a blindfold and blew kisses to her executors.

"She died with her head held high," Brandsen said.

Mata Hari runs till Feb 26 at the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 02, 2016, with the headline 'Tragic story of striptease in dance'. Print Edition | Subscribe