Mata Hari


Mata Hari ballet choreographed and directed by Ted Brandsen. Music by Tarik O'Regan with orchestration by Anthony Weeden. Libretto by Janine Brogt. Staged 2016 at the Dutch National Opera. Stars (in order listed in disc booklet) Anna Tsygankova (Born Margaretha Zelle, later known as Mata Hari), Casey Herd (Rudolph McLeod, Margaretha's husband), Jozef Varga (General Kiepert), Artur Shesterikov (Vadim De Masloff), Young Gyu Choi (Shiva), Wen Ting Guan (Temple Dancer), Emanouela Merdjanova (Friede McLeod, Rudolph's mother), Erica Horwood (Isadora Duncan), Nadia Yanowsky (La Madame), Edo Wijnen (Master of Ceremonies), Anatole Babenko (M. Guimet), Roman Artyushkin (Lieutanant Ladoux), Wendeline Wijkstra, Pascalle Paerel, Hannah de Klein (three Aunts), Wolfgang Tietze, Peter Leung, Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair (three Uncles), and Nicolas Rapaic (Adam Zelle, Margatetha's father) as well as students and pupils of the Dutch National Ballet Academy. Matthew Rowe conducts the Dutch National Ballet Orchestra. Sets and lighting by Clement & Sanôu; costumes by François-Noël Cherpin; video directed by Jeff Tudor. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound (sound info on back of package above is wrong and was corrected on the disc I bought). Grade: B

Ballet doesn't mesh well with biography. True, MacMillan made 3 ballets connected to famous real persons, Mayerling, Isadora, and Anastasia. Mayerling, a marvelous work, is a true-crime story, not a biography. Isadora was inspired by the life of Isadora Duncan, but it's an experimental mashup of dancing and readings from texts. Anastasia asks the question whether a lady in a hospital was the Russian Grand-Duchess, a fraud, or just plain crazy. Spartacus is, it appears, fiction loosely suggested by the life of a real slave Spartacus who challenged the ancient Roman state. Copeland's Billy the Kid is per Wikipedia "not so much a biography of a . . . desperado as it is a perception of the pioneer West." Finally, see our review of Chaplin, a series of scenes inspired by the life of Charlie Chaplin which we decided is, "not a biography or a comedy."

If you want a biography, you buy a book that has 600 pages of facts and nuanced analysis of a life. Ballet can't remotely compete with that. But in Mata Hari, Brandsen and Brogt have attempted to present, though vastly over-simplified, an explanation of who Magraretha Zelle was and why her life ended before a firing squad.

Their ballet gives you something to think about. But is it a biography? We will go through an analysis using screenshots. Each step of the way, we will see what Brandsen and Janine Brogt tell us. Then we will refer to the Wikipedia article on Mata Hari to see history says---and this we will relate in "[]" brackets. Pardon me for using Wikipedia. I haven't got time to find a reliable book about Mata Hari, if such a thing exists.

Let's get started. In our first screenshot below we see Magraretha Zelle at about age 8 (young dancer not credited). She's already preternaturally attractive and adorable. But her mother is gone and her father Adam (Nicolas Rapaic), wearing the red scarf, soon will also leave her.  To the right we meet her three sets of uncles and aunts:

Adam Zelle departs, never to return. He leaves his scarf behind, which Margaretha will desperately clutch for the rest of her life: 

Margaretha (Anna Tsygankova ) isn't an heiress, but there's money to support her. She grows up interested in the arts and is seen here posing for a painter:

Her conservative, bourgeois, and repressed relatives treat her strictly, perhaps in over-reaction to scandal caused by her parents. So as Margaretha finishes her schooling she has been correctly treated but starved for love. She is beautiful but isolated, creative but restricted, and ambitious but surrounded by reactionaries. Already the blue-print for a Mata Hari is there, but Margaretha is too dutiful and respectful to rebel. Instead she dreams of a man who can take her to a better place:

[Janine Brogt's concept of Margaretha's childhood is artistically intriguing, but it is all but total fantasy. Margaretha grew up in a normal Dutch family with a mother, father, and three brothers. There were no collateral relatives in the picture. Both of Margaretha's parents died while she was a teenager, and she lived for some time with her Godfather, who took his duties seriously. The future Mata Hari entered a training program to become a kindergarten teacher! But the Godfather jerked her out of the program when the director started hitting on her. So at 18, our heroine was a normal girl with a lot of sex appeal, a modest education, no inheritance or boyfriend, and not much advice. What does such a girl do? She answered a newspaper ad from an army officer looking for a young wife. How boring.]

Meet Rudolph McLeod (Casey Herd), an army officer 20 years Margaretha's senior. He is the guy she's been waiting for:

But there's something wrong with Rudolph that Margaretha cannot fathom: a domineering possessive mother (Emanouela Merdjanova):

Rudolph drinks too much and then gets violent, beats, and rapes Margaretha. Her first child is will be the outcomes of the rape depicted below:

Some years have passed. Margaretha and Rudolf have two beautiful children. The family now lives in the Dutch East Indies where Rudolf is a military commander. But you can see from Margaretha's expression in the family photo below that her marriage is about shot:

Margaretha seeks solace in the native temples where she meets and befriends sacred dancers. She sees a vision in which the statue of the God Shiva (Young Gyu Choi) comes to life:

Margaretha's son dies. Rudolph blames Margaretha and takes away their daughter Louise. Margaretha must flee back to Europe. 


[In Brogt's libretto, Margaretha's marriage is haunted by disapproval on both sides of the union, laying an even more thorough predicate for the eventual explosion that would be the Mata Hari persona. But the reality was more mundane. True, Rudolf was an alcoholic jerk and had a native concubine.  But Margaretha had a comfortable life in Indonesia. She had the time and inclination to learn about the culture of the subject people in the Dutch colony.She joined a dance company and adopted the artistic name Mata Hari in Indonesia. The marriage lasted longer than Rudolf's tour of duty in the Dutch East Indies and the final breakup in Europe was quiet messy. Both children possibly died from a case of syphilis that infected the marriage.]

Act 2. Free now from responsibility, Margaretha moves to Paris with its artists' colonies and night life. She needs to make a living and tries, without success, to find work as a dancer.

[Once again the reality was more mundane. At some point, Margaretha decided to take advantage of her sex appeal. Her first job in show business was riding a horse in a circus under the name Lady MacLeod!]

She gets a break when a wealthy art collector sees her inventing a temple dance routine. The collector encourages her, and Mata Hari is born. [After entering show business, Margaretha became increasing promiscuous and aggressive. She became the mistress of Émile Étienne Guimet, an industrialist who slummed in the demimonde. When the exotic dancer fad began, Mata Hari was ready to become the latest sensation.]

Mata Hari claims she is Indonesian. Her dancing includes nude scenes (maybe with a body stocking) which she asserts to be legal under anthropology laws as examples of Indonesian culture:

[The fleshy Mata Hari had assets different from the rail-thin ballerinas of today. But she rarely went topless. She wasn't flat, but she thought her breasts were too small, and you can easily see this in contemporary photos.]

The trappings of celebrity:

[There were many exotic dancers who became famous in this era. Of course, they could get good fees for performances. But there were not that many opportunities to perform and few ways to reach the public otherwise. The real money, it seems, came from working a high-class prostitute or courtesan.]

All thanks to the God Shiva:

Mata Hari prays to Shiva in her dressing room:

The German bon vivant General Kiepert (Jozef Varga) takes over the management of Mata Hari's career and becomes her lover:

[There's nothing in the Wikipedia article to suggest any religious or philosophical facet to Mata Hari. Also the name Kiepert doesn't appear, and it's a bit silly to think of a German general working as booking agent for a strip-tease artist. But it is true that Mata Hari had contacts with high-ranking military officers and government officials in many countries.]

 But soon there is new competition on the night club circuit. Below is Erica Horwood as Isador Duncan:

You have to stay alert with this show. The red backlight in this scene tells us that World War I has broken out:

Now Kiepert hires Mata Mari to be a spy for Germany: 


Mata Hari fell in love with a Russian pilot named Maslov (Artur Shesterikov) who was flying for the French:


Below is Lieutenant Ladoux (Roman Artyushkin), a French counter-intelligent officer who discovers Mata Hari is a spy:

Maslov is crushed when he learns that his lover is working for the Germans. Mata Hari is summarily executed after a show trial:


[Everything in the last 5 screenshots above is wrong. In reality the French, not the Germans, got Mata Hari started in the spy business. Later while working for the French, she apparently took money from the Germans as well. This eventually led to the French double-agent charge against her that ultimately resulted in her execution.

It's almost impossible to believe that anyone would give information of military value to a world-famous nude dancer and courtesan or that anyone would expect her to find out anything of value. (But who would have thought that US General Petraeus would give security-classified documents to his mistress so she would write a better book.)

Spies are by definition people nobody ever heard of or noticed. It appears Mata Hari was, however, a good scapegoat for the French to try and execute with the objective of inflaming public opinion in France in favor of continuing the war. And a lot of famous people were not too sad to see her shot.

Maslov was not crushed by Margaretha's fate. Blinded in battle and embittered, he eventually rejected her and refused to testify on her behalf at her show-trial.]

So did Brandsen and Brogt get close to a biography here? I would say not very--- this just another fantasy tale loosely inspired by real events. But one should not be too critical.  A lot has been written about Mata Hari, but a great deal of the truth is still unknown. I was surprised to read in the Wikipedia article that the French file on Margaretha's trial was sealed and is due to be opened for public reading in 2017. Wait! That's this year!!

So maybe soon we will start seeing reports on the true story. Who would care to write anything further on Mata Hari? Why, the Dutch. Right now I can't think of any Dutch citizen since Rembrandt who is more famous than Mata Hari. Heck --- strumpet Margaretha might be more famous even than Rembrandt. The whole honor of the Dutch nation is at stake! And if it turns out that Margaretha really was a victim and not a perpetrator, maybe Mata Hari will become a compelling heroine.

Now for a grade. A lot or original work went into creating this new show. The music, sets, costumes, and choreography play about par for modern dance: well-done and serviceable but nothing especially spectacular or memorable. Anna Tsygankova supports her role as victim with excellent acting skills, but she doesn't seem particularly enticing to me as seductress or femme fatale. The real Mata Hari was a world-class sex-pot and Anna T is not. (I wonder how Tamara Rojo or Alice Renavand would have looked in this.)  Perhaps it would help the show if the truth can be revealed about Mata Hari and the libretto can be fashioned into something more honestly biographical.

I did a Dance Wonk Worksheet on Mata Hari. 800 video clips is too many for a video of 103 minutes with a fast pace of 7.8 seconds per clip. Only 11% of the chips show the whole stage. This is a shame because the support team worked hard on making nice sets which we don't get to see enough. Only 59% of the clips show the whole bodies of dancers, which is another way of saying that the film has too many close-ups. But this is offset to some degree by 20 to 30 or so long clips of solos and duets which I remember watching with special pleasure. The critical comments I've made could easily work out to a C for this show. But that would ignore the work by all concerned involved in creating a completely new ballet. In honor of that contribution, I bump the grade to a B.

To me all this sifts out for now as a B-grade title.

More fun --- the real sexpot who took off most of her clothes:


Here are a couple of clips with good video from this disc (they look the same but are different):