MATA HARI - Villains & Sidechicks Pt. 2
Updated: Feb 17
SHE-ROS & VILLAINS - The Characters That Made Me
VILLAINS & SIDECHICKS 1: Kitty-Cats, Dommes & Dinner
...countless other leading ladies in towers, dragon caves, railroad tracks, cellars, seaside rocks, cliffs, and dungeons all had to be rescued by males.
Alas, you had to be beautiful to be rescued, so it was very clear to me. I was going to have to rescue myself. Either that, or become the flippin' dragon, tiger, witch or villain.
Until I had that original 1989 version of Serpent of the Nile (3) sent up from the Minneapolis library, I had only heard of Mata Hari as a notorious temptress who had used her status as a traveling stage performer with a neutral passport to spy for the Germans, for which she was executed. I knew her as the epitome of the evil, traitorous femme fatale, a devious double-agent who had gotten caught, like all good turncoats should be, rawr!
I didn't know anything about what kind of dancing she had done, and I certainly hadn't seen any of the amazing black-and-white photographs of her. Alas, there isn't any dance footage of her, but she was photographed in a variety of costumes and stunning fashions of the day. She was also photographed after her arrest.
Two of those photos were in the book:
Reutlinger. Mata Hari. Photographs. BBC Hulton Picture Library, London.
Serpent of the Nile, Buonaventura, page 145.
These costumes and many others from this chapter about the Orientalist image set my mind ablaze with the kind of luxurious sensuality and ornate allure I yearned for as a budding belly dancer.
The book also had a more in-depth account of her story from what I had been taught as a 17-year-old studying the Great War in World History. Through the ensuing years, I would come across more photos and postcards of her. I would also come across more and more historical information that would poke ever greater holes into her guilty verdict, giving weight to the plea of innocence she maintained to her death: "A courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never! I have always lived for love and pleasure." (3-5)
So who was Mata Hari?
Much new light has been shed on her story, including the release of 1275 pages of documentation about her espionage case that had remained sealed by the French Army. (4, 6) These were finally declassified in 2017, one hundred years after her execution, even thoughMat Haria the Germans had exonerated her as early as 1930.
So who was she really?
Dancer. Courtesan. Temptress. Spy.
Wife. Mother. Battered Woman. Divorcee.
The stages called her a sacred Javanese temple dancer, which she absolutely was not. But, as we've discussed previously, false exotic "Eastern" mystique was one of the entertainment practices of the day. (2)
In truth, (3-5) she was a Dutch woman who had answered an ad in the paper for an army captain living in what was then the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). He wanted a wife, and in Margaretha Zelle he got one. The marriage was an unhappy one. He was an alcoholic, an adulterer, and a wife-beater who had passed on syphilis to his wife and their two children, both of whom became violently ill from complications arising from using mercury in the treatment of the disease (poisoning from a servant was also rumored). Although the girl survived, the boy died.
Margaretha left her husband and battled for custody of their daughter in the divorce, which she won. He was supposed to pay child support, but never did. He also refused to give the girl back on one of her visitations, a situation that became permanent as Margaretha didn't have the money to fight him in court again.
After moving to Paris in 1903, she first tried to earn a living as a circus horse rider and an artist's model. In 1904, she made her overnight splash as the exotic dancer, Mata Hari. She was a contemporary of two of my other dance she-ros, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, and took her inspiration from the Orientalist hunger for anything to do with the Exotic East, but her claim to fame was her bold move of stripping down to nothing but her ornate dance bra and some jewelry.
Apparently she was self-conscious about being small-busted, so she let it out that her violent ex-husband had bitten off one of her nipples in a fit of rage. Another dancer of the era named Colette had danced topless, and many exotic dancers wore fleshings--skin-hued body stockings from neck to ankle, often decorated with pieces of cloth and jewelry. These were audacious moves in an era that had been scandalized by the mere sight of Isadora Duncan's bare legs and feet. (3)
In an interview, Mata Hari admitted, "With every veil I shed my success increased. On the pretext of finding my dancing highly artistic and expressive, that is praising my art, it was nudity they really came to see (...) I play on sensuality (...) But the artistic gloss with which I imbue everything I do preserves me from vulgarity." (5)
She became obsessed with the idea of collaborating with the Ballet Russes (9), who were also exploring Orientalist themes. Cleopatra, Salome, and Scheherazade were the most notable. Although she received a (grudging) audition, they said that they had no opening for her with the company.
Alas, in spite of her quick rise to fame, she was competing against the likes of The Duncan, St. Denis, Maud Allen, and Theda Bara, and her notoriety gave rise to a host of imitators. It didn't take long before Mata Hari lost her place to younger, bolder and more artistically skilled rivals who didn't rely on eroticism and exhibitionism. She became known as a dancer who didn't know how to dance.
Her role as the mistress of prominent men had greater longevity than her stage appeal, but among other women she wasn't known for being endearing--not to her dressmakers, or other dancers and courtesans. Neither was she known for being circumspect or having a good feel for the changing times.
When the Great War broke out, her attitudes, extravagances and ostrich feathers didn't go over well among war-wearied audiences and a world of entertainment whose primary purpose had shifted toward boosting the morale of troops rather than titillating the rich and powerful. She suddenly seemed self-indulgent and brash, and at 39 with her graying hair and aging physique, she could no longer get away with it.
She made a series of blunders in her attempts to reclaim prominence and financial support. As a Dutch citizen, her country's neutrality allowed her to freely cross borders. This, combined with her pillow talk skills, made her an ideal candidate for espionage. Both sides tried to woo her; neither side apparently got much from the bargain, yet she wound up being accused, arrested, tried and executed as the German double-agent who had caused the death of 50, 000 soldiers.
Theories have abounded as to the truth of the charges, and whether or not she was a spy or a scapegoat. Evidence against her was weak, but they still condemned her--not only to death. They also painted an extravagant tale of the lethal, vicious courtesan-spy, one of the most notorious women of WWI.
The Greta Garbo movie trailer 1931
What's that saying? That even bad press is good press? Tell that to Mata Hari.
By 1985, her legend had become so bloated that, even when they tried to give her redeemable motives, the best they could come with was a woman overcome with love, lust, and an obsessive need to bare the two things that history tells us she usually kept covered. But...well...80s soft-porn, man. It's a thing.
Here is a link to the age-restricted movie trailer I'm not allowed to embed on my website, due to AllTheBoobies.
One of the things that made her dastardly image so easy to accomplish was the propaganda machine already at work before her arrest. For example, she had been tasked by the French with seducing the German Crown Prince, for whom she had once danced. Not only was he not the great war leader and grand heir that his nation advertised (they were covering up his debauched playboy escapades), but the elaborate stagecraft persona Mata Hari had concocted for herself also damaged her case. During interrogation, her facts kept changing as she tried to keep it all straight. It was too easy for her interrogator, a renowned detractor of "loose women," to believe in the myth that she was the clever, expert, exotic temptress, the most natural enemy spy.
It was more her blunders than her super-spy skills that got her condemned--that and being a female who pursued sex, self-expression, and designing a life on her own terms, at a time when the Allies needed someone to blame for their own mishaps.
As a result, Margaretha Zelle was executed by firing squad, where she was said to have met her death with composure, even refusing the blindfold. The tale that she blew a kiss to her executioners is probably one in a myriad myth-making extravagances.
If you're as curious as I am about her history versus her legend, here is one of many video discussions about the subject:
No matter what was truth and what was fiction, Mata Hari's tale captured my imagination at a highly impressionable age. She inspired my craving for opulent costumes, as well as my dreams for bucking rigid, suffocating societal mores, and she added yet another example of a dance form that combined the erotic, the exotic, the sacred, and the artistically expressive.
She also brought to mind a host of questions to my 20-year-old mind. In the information I could get my hands on in the early 90s, the scapegoat theory was only that--a theory backing Mata Hari's professions of innocence and the cries of her supporters. Since her accusers had never found any overwhelming condemning evidence against her, I began to wonder if scapegoating was actually the reality.
After all, hadn't I swallowed a hefty dose of that myself? Early in my freshman year of college, I learned that throughout high school I was reputed to have been a proponent of insatiable and constant sex from the age of 14.
In truth, I'd had brief, fumbling, clueless intercourse with my two long-term boyfriends precisely 6.5 times.
The denigration of feminine power and sensuality continued.
In my college studies of ancient history, I had also begun learning about the differences between Cleopatra's myth and her history. Then in Serpent of the Nile, and in nearly every veil dance class I ever took, I was taught that the Dance of the Seven Veils was originally a celebration of the life cycle through the temples of Ishtar (7, 8)--that it represented the Goddess descending through the seven gates of the Underworld where she had to give up an article of power at each one. After hanging dead on a hook for three days, the Queen of Heaven and Earth then arose, renewed and stronger than ever. (No, that doesn't sound familiar at all...)
It was said that, through Oscar Wilde's version of Salome, both the dance and the girl's reputation had been transformed into some dark, dastardly condemnation fostered by conservative patriarchal religions, just like Ishtar Herself had been.
There seemed to be too many strong, powerful, unconventional, sexually liberated female figures who wound up demonized as the downfall of men, rulers, armies and empires everywhere. These unfettered, ornate, irresistible temptresses who ran around free of proper marital shackles seemed to have their tales twisted to suit the purposes of the winning side.
So Mata Hari became a figure of intrigue for me, as well as a figure of caution. I learned that it was important to pay attention to the winds of change, the prevailing attitudes, and the reception of my audience. That's one of the many reasons my dance has gone through such dramatic shifts through the decades.
I also learned how important it is to be gracious and kind to the so-called "little" people who can make or break you, and without whom you would be dancing to empty seats on a dark, bare stage with no introduction. In my case, that was the tech crew, my hair-dressers and costumers, the dancers and producers who brought me to perform and teach, my students, and the other performers.
There were more than a few shows in which I much preferred to hang with the tech crew backstage, rather than gossiping and small-talking with some quite famous dancers who had snubbed "the help", barely giving them a nod as they passed through the theater in their furs and perfect makeup prior to putting on our stage faces.
Me? Eh. I was never that famous, I'm a tomboy, and I've always been better at kicking back backstage, as that notorious swanky benefit with big-wigs proved. Except for shows where we did our hair and makeup in the hotel, I usually showed up with a freshly scrubbed face and clean, un-styled hair, in jeans and a leather jacket.
Although while traveling to super cold climates, I eventually did wear my long faux snow kitty coat, a gift from my mommy that is as much practical desperation for the freeze-baby as it is extravagant and snuggly. But I still preferred hanging with down-to-earth people rather than trying to maintain some sort of untouchable, unapproachable mystique that is just not me.
Some performers cultivate this image as armor against overzealous fans and catty detractors, because it's part of their stage persona, or as a means to combat extreme shyness. Heck, my lack of offstage glamor is part of my armor. I have nothing against mystique, makeup, or glamorous stagecraft--until it includes treating people like crap and hissing awful things behind people's backs. (Of course, you can do that in sweats and a t-shirt just as easily.)
Demanding divas star in all sorts of horror stories throughout the world of entertainment. Having seen some in action myself, I never wanted to be that. My tenuous health makes me demanding by nature for anyone who wants to work with me. Going against the requirements of my injuries and conditions will result in sub-par performance and a very UN-FUN headliner having neurological episodes--as we will see in future posts. But my personality and the way I treat people is a choice.
I learned this by being a producer/director and part of tech crew, or by having friends in these roles. I also learned it by studying Mata Hari's mistakes.
One of her most hailed blunders, however, is something I have never had it in me to stop doing, no matter the cost. Like her, I have always been more loyal to the greater vision of my art than I have been to the number of seats in my audience or the number of online subscribers. Also like her, I have paid for that choice. Obviously, I hope that it never leads to such a damning debacle as she experienced, but the freedoms inherent in a path like hers have always been something I refuse to sacrifice for ticket sales.
Which pretty much sucks, while trying to make a living as an entertainer, but the creator and innovator in me just can't follow popular trends. Instead, I tend to be one of the people battling across the river, hucking the initial stepping stones and glub-glubbing when the current becomes too strong.
Through the years, as the prejudices, realities, and abuses of Orientalism have come to light, I have lost the ability to clearly know where to file this love of the encrusted, the Eastern, and the exotic alongside my passion for treating people with respect and honor. It's all up for review, and one of my greatest frustrations.
As I've covered in previous posts, and as I will continue to cover, I can't simply dump it all in the trash as "That Was A Horrible Mistake, made when I didn't know any better and I'll never do it again." No, no...I totally will. Not in the same way. But it is so intrinsically woven into the deepest expression of my spiritual and artistic natures that to do so...well, I would rather stop dancing and become purely atheist.
And that's not happening.
So I question. I delve. I dance and I meditate. I evolve. I devolve. I revolve.
And I dance some more.
My obsession with encrusted, ornate, glamorous goodness,
and the soul in my dancing:
Since I usually end our escapades with yummy music, let's go one step further with one final hat-tip to our vilified she-ro of the day.
The 2016 television series about Mata Hari focused far more on her roles as a woman escaping an abusive marriage and trying to get her daughter back in a time when females had been stripped of power, particularly (totally worth clicking over to YouTub in custody battles and in carving out a chosen life path. I drooled over the show. It's as visually stunning as the photos that had inspired me all those years ago, and I loved that they explored other aspects of her life beyond the stage and the wartime intrigue. They dove into possible motivations for how she became Mata Hari that differed from the titillating temptress propaganda.
Alas, the show was released before the 2017 declassification of the French documents, so it still played into the Super-Spy Myth more than I would have liked to have seen.
To explore the real story--now that's a rendition I’d be interested in seeing onscreen.
Until then, we can swoon over this (totally worth clicking over to YouTube for a sec):
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: PASSION *IS* PRAYER - Villains & Sidechicks 3: Veronica Franco, Ishmael & the Roots of All Eve-il
--OR if you'd like to explore a vastly different exotic dancer who was a fully successful and decorated spy in the Second World War, you can pop over here.
--OR for more on Orientalism and other dastardly dance histories, as well as my earliest dance muses, you can find that HERE.
MORE LINKS FOR YOUR GEEKING PLEASURE:
3) The original 1989 version of Wendy Buonaventura’s Serpent of the Nile (This visually stunning book has since been revised for the second time in 2010, but I haven’t read it to know if it more appropriately reflects and respects the cultures in question.)
5) Messalina or Salome? The Life & Times of Mata Hari, International Woman of Mystery
10) Theories on the origins of the Bedlah - the belly dancer's glitzy belt-n-bra costume: