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Did Socrates say "Know Thyself", or was he misunderstood, as all are. Show Thyself is all we can do. The knowing is unknowable.  

I am filled with joy.  It can't be helped.  

Became a Farmer, Builder, Musician, Tank Commander, Librarian, Lawyer and Minister. I have failed at many things. And now retired.  Filled, just filled, with Joy. 

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Mata Hari's Dance, old Flamenco, new Lumbres and Alegrias

This is the 100th anniversary of Mata Hari's execution in 1917. Under her married name, she is the most famous of the MacLeods, and although well-known, completely unsung and misunderstood.

The MacLeods were a Scots clan that pretty much annihilated the Keys, a sept of the McKay clan, but by some oversight, they missed my progenitors on that branch of the tree. Still, I remember all MacLeods, with a kind of gratitude that they have calmed down considerably. And Mata Hari is simply one of the greats.

And this comes up opportunely in 2007, with the first biography I have seen of her. Pat Shipman authored a significant Biography of our dearest MacLeod, known to us by her stage name, "Mata Hari". [Shipman, Femme Fatale; Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari]. Born in Holland in 1876, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle married Rudolf Macleod, an army officer stationed in Indonesia. She eventually returned to the Netherlands, divorced, and penniless, sought the attention of wealthy men. With an instinct "for what would succeed", she developed a series of "sacred dances" ostensibly learned in the Indies. The Malay phrase she adopted as her name, means "the eye of the day", or "sunrise".

As World War I broke out, the Belle Epoch tied off, and it got hard for a dancing lady to earn a living. She was approached by French and German diplomats, all males, with advances in cash and kind. Eventually she was hounded mercilessly by a French double agent, Georges Ladoux--he was himself playing both sides--and prosecuted for spying, although the evidence was completely based on her supposed "immorality", her transparently eager willingness and patent ability to drain men of their bodily fluids. Her skills had really nothing to do with espionage, and it is difficult to imagine a lady less likely to be able to go un-noticed than Mata Hari.

She was imprisoned in the filth of the prison at Saint-Lazare until her execution by firing squad in 1917. And this is but another example of a miscarriage of justice in the magistrate system under the Napoleonic Code; see also Dreyfus. Preconception and scapegoating, religious piety, the need to do "something" when another thing--the War--is not doing well, all tainted the pretense of a trial.

Now, about the dancing....!

The costume alone, of course, was worth the price of admission: Beautiful brunette in a shining metal bra, spangly tiara, and transparent veils. We have no choreographic descriptions although the men who watched her have related fairly specific bits. Their journals were set atremble by the intoxicating mixture of exotic music, striptease, and veiled anatomy. These accounts, all by men, "are a hoot" in their way, but we have no way of reconstituting the dances. Nejla Y. Yatkin is one professional who does a great contemporary depiction.

I want to suggest something more. The descriptions of the rhythms--from slow liquid gestures to swirling and shaking--are in many forms of dance. However, it is hard for me not to think of Romani women and small flamenco performances. First of all, the performance itself was a series of alegrias, with taranto stylings, at one with the music, sumptouous. From her poverty in the Spanish portions of the Netherlands, and in Europe, there would be exposure to the Gypsy solo dances. And the veils? This is not really a "sacred" or traditional element in Indonesian dance. It is moorish, Arabesque, belly-dancing. She provided content to the interest Europeans had in the Middle Eastern cultures -- with veiled women.

It is documented then (!): Mata Hari drew from the nyai traditions of Malaysian mistresses, gypsy performers, and Middle-eastern exoticism, to capture an audience.