Myth maker

Some 90 years after her death, the name Mata Hari still has the power to intrigue. In The Last Dance of Mata Hari, White Dog ProjectX explores themes of freedom and liberation—all while honoring the life of the mysterious adventurer and exotic dancer whose influence on modern dance was never fully realized.

ACDT dancer Kala Hildebrand as the sultry Mata Hari. Photos courtesy ACDT

“Mata Hari was an independent, free-thinking woman at a period in history when it wasn’t stylish or even acceptable to be,” notes artistic director Susan Collard. “The interesting thing about Mata Hari is that she never studied dance formally, and yet she became the star of Europe, creating her own style of dance. She was as inspiring as Isadora Duncan or Ruth St. Denis, but before.”

White Dog ProjectX is an international offshoot of Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, focusing on cross-cultural exchange through the performing arts. For this production, Collard invited Erika Torres of Mexico, Nelson Reyes and Diana Cabrera Stepanova of Cuba, and ACDT company members to work collaboratively on the choreography.

Both dramatic and sultry, The Last Dance of Mata Hari tells the story of a woman who seduced pre-World War I Europe with an unprecedented style of oriental and exotic dance.

Born in the Netherlands as Margaretha Zelle, the wife of a Dutch Colonial Army officer began to reimagine her own identity and future while stationed abroad with her husband. “In Indonesia, Mata Hari was exposed to Eastern art forms, and it was there that she started to create herself,” notes Jamie Scott, an ACDT dancer.

“She was dancing with other local women, and she was a part of the society; very near to the Indian people,” says Torres, a dancer and artist. “She was speaking Javanese, and spending a lot of time looking a the local dances and talking with the people.”

Years later at the Guimet Museum in Paris, Mata Hari gave a flirtatious, sensual performance that launched her career. “In Paris and throughout Europe everyone knew [Mata Hari] as the toast of the town, a famous courtesan and entertainer,” says Scott. At the height of her career, Mata Hari became associated with Europe’s most high-ranking officers, including the German high prince. But her days of fame and success were numbered, and a fast-growing rumor of treachery led to her downfall.

In the city that first embraced her, Mata Hari was accused of working as a spy for the German army and put to trial. “Everyone knows that many of the decisions of the county happen in bed, and when men relax, they start to talk,” says Torres. “Because she was a courtesan with many important people, I think that they figured out that she was exchanging information about these men, but we cannot know for sure.”

Cuban dancer Diana Cabrera Stepanova captures Mata Hari’s seductive style.

On Oct. 15, 1917, she was executed before a firing squad, an event known as Mata Hari’s last dance. “She thought, ‘This is my last performance, like a fairytale ending for the public,’” suggests Torres. “She was performing her own execution: open, quiet, smiling, putting on a performer’s face, because she wanted to die performing.”

The line between fact and fiction blurs when it comes to Mata Hari’s life and death. “She was a maker of myths; and her whole life was a myth,” offers Collard. “There are stories about her blowing a kiss to her executioners. There is a myth that she was never shot at all, and another that she turned [to face the firing squad] completely naked.”

To capture the many faces of this evocative character, five dancers will perform the part of Mata Hari, each representing a different phase in her extraordinary life. However, these representations of Mata Hari will only be seen through film and multimedia projections.

Creating a veil between truth and fiction, woman versus myth, Mata Hari’s image will dance across a screen, a flickering projection to which live dancers must relate. “We are working on the interplay between film and dance,” says Collard. The company hopes that the use of film will amplify the mystical characteristics behind Mata Hari’s public identity. All material is original, performed by the ACDT Company or guest artists, and filmed by William Towers.

“She will be a fantasy,” Collard says. “Both the ghost and the star of the show.”

who: White Dog ProjectX presents The Last Dance of Mata Hari
what: A concert of sultry modern dance celebrating Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre’s 30th season
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Friday, Nov. 21, and Saturday, Nov. 22. 8 p.m. ($25/$15 students and seniors., or 254-2621)

About Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt
Aiyanna grew up on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. She was educated at The Cambridge School of Weston, Sarah Lawrence College, and Oxford University. Aiyanna lives in Asheville, North Carolina where she proudly works for Mountain Xpress, the city’s independent local newspaper.

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