A brand new evening-length narrative ballet with a newly commissioned score, eye-catching designs, and a rather unusual subject is a rarity today. Mata Hari is an extraordinary ballet, a real tour de force, created this year in Amsterdam for Dutch National Ballet and now available on video courtesy of Opus Arte.
Women spies - or spies in general, for that matter - don't make an obvious subject for a ballet. Yet, the Dutch Margaretha Zelle (1876-1917) aka Mata Hari, suspected of being a double agent and shot by a French army firing squad, had also been a infamous dancer in her time. On the crest of the Belle Epoque's fascination with exoticism she became an international sensation overnight when she performed a daring Javanese temple dance in 1905 Paris. She later wanted to join Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, but was unsuccessful. In any case, her unusual and very turbulent life from small-town petty bourgeois girl to worldly-wise femme fatale enclosed enough drama for Ted Brandsen, artistic director of Dutch National Ballet, to turn it into a remarkable ballet.
It's remarkable that in these lean times for the arts no expenses and efforts were spared for bringing Mata Hari to the stage. Ted Brandsen took care of the choreography and assembled an international artistic team - the Dutch dramaturge and author Janine Brogt gave shape to Mata Hari's life in the libretto, the British composer Tarik O'Regan set it to music in a 90-minute score for large orchestra, the Dutch designers duoClement & Sanôu conceived the framework of decors and lights, and the French designer François-Noël Cherpin created more than 300 costumes from key episodes in Mata Hari's life - including late 19th-century Friesland, Dutch colonial life on Java, and Paris in the Belle Epoque.
Involving a cast of 60 dancers and an orchestra of 76 musicians, Mata Hari opened in Amsterdam's Muziektheater on 6 February 2016, quickly becoming a box-office success. It is ballet on an epic scale and of a superhuman sweep we hardly ever see any more. Brandsen's choreography is firmly rooted in the classical idiom, but adds formal freedom for expressive purposes. The title role was created on Dutch National's first soloist Anna Tsygankova who gives a performance of a lifetime. She is joined by several leading dancers, including Casey Herd as Margarethe's husband Rudolph McLeod, Jozef Varga as the German general Kiepert, and Artur Shesterikov as her final Russian lover Vadim de Masloff. With its almost continuous succession of ensembles, duets and solos, as a ballet Mata Hari is company work at its most inspired.
Filmed in the opening run by the independent Amsterdam-based production company 3 Minutes West, Mata Hari was initially broadcast live on worldwide Mezzo TV and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD, looking and sounding pretty stunning. Attractively directed by Jeff Tudor, the visuals of this release are a treat. The high-definition cameras reveal Cherpin's brilliantly colorful costumes with startling detail. Tarik O'Regan composed in his first effort for ballet a compelling score, which shares influences of American minimalism and Benjamin Britten (his music for the ballet Prince of the Pagodas comes to mind), but finds his own voice in its complex rhythmic layering and memorable lyrical passages. It offers the ideal accompaniment for the narrative and is performed with great impact by the Dutch Ballet Orchestra. Beautifully recorded in surround sound and PCM stereo, the Blu-ray offers a highly enjoyable evening at the ballet in your home.
Mata Hari includes a useful "The Making Of" documentary (26 min.) which could well serve as a model for future new ballet releases. It accompanies the viewer through the three-year-long creative process with short but well-chosen interviews and rehearsal clips. Brandsen describes Zelle's life as "a raging torrent" and emphasizes her uncanny talent for transformation and reinvention. In his ballet, scenes flash by in cinematographic manner, but no matter the intensity, the image of an extraordinary woman shines through, a willful character in a male dominated society, but eventually victim of her own mythomania. Her execution following her involvement with high-ranking army officers can be read as the ultimate statement of disapproval by a society not ready yet for women of her caliber. Mata Hari may be more timeless than we expect.
If ever a contemporary ballet deserved to be captured on film it had to be Dutch National's Mata Hari. Warmly recommended.
Copyright © 2016, Marc Haegeman