Invisible Ink

Invisible Ink: Destiny and the Dance of Mata Hari

A dance/theater performance based on the life of Mata Hari. Written and directed by Nikki Appino with original choreography by Wade Madsen and an original score by Wayne Horvitz.

Invisible Ink is a dance/theater performance based on the life of Mata Hari (1876-1917). The work is created for two actors, one singer, and a three-piece orchestra. Marguerite Zelle, a.k.a. Mata Hari, lived with her husband in the Dutch East Indies where she learned the native sacred dances of Java and Sumatra. She incorporated them into her “performances” (stripteases) when she changed her name to “Mata Hari” and hit the cabaret circuit of pre-WW1 Paris. This combination of the sacred and the profane created a sensation.

The enigmatic Mata Hari had little to do with the Dutch girl born Margaret Gertrude Zelle in 1876. At eighteen she married an officer and moved to Banjoe-Biroe, in the Dutch East Indies. There her abusive husband drank and kept a string of mistresses. She also had a child supposedly poisoned by a jealous servant. But the two remained together creating cons and blackmailing local landowners. She finally divorced her husband and was intent on supporting herself as a dancer, emulating the dances she had seen performed in Java. She traveled to Paris in 1903 to make her reputation, but only found work as a stripper. After a year or two she returned to Holland, gathered as much money as she could and returned to Paris with a new wardrobe and a new name, Mata Hari. Her plan worked and she was summoned by the curious nightclub owners who wished to see “the most exotic dancer in the world”. She became a smash hit and toured the great European capitals. She kept a book of all her press clippings and a second book full of hundreds of letters from Europe’s most powerful men, correspondences that could easily be converted to blackmail. In 1912 the story goes that she “became a spy” for the Germans. After the machinations of war and conflicting details about her spy activities she became expendable and was executed by a French firing squad in 1917.

Mata Hari created and recreated herself using the tools she had, her mind and her body. We will never know who she really was, but Invisible Ink constructs her story using text, dance, and song in an attempt to capture this “elusive spy”.



Sensuous dance, song try to tease out the elusive Mata Hari

By Misha Berson
Seattle Times Theater Review
January 21, 2002

You don’t come away from Nikki Appino’s hypnotic new performance piece “Invisible Ink” having cracked the code of a fabled dancer and would-be spy.

But that befits Appino’s subject: the brazen yet ever-elusive Mata Hari (born Margaretha Zelle), whose life was as exotic and baffling as her death before a French firing squad in 1917.

Barely an hour long, “Invisible Ink” is like a cloud of incense, trailing an intoxicating fragrance you can’t quite identify. Suffused with Wayne Horvitz’s sensuous East-West music (by singer Jessika Skeletalia, Horvitz on piano and others), and graced with Wade Madsen’s supple choreography, the show unspools Mata Hari’s saga like a strange, swirling dream.

For a real dossier on Mata Hari, who would not fit into the corseted life of a “proper” Victorian woman, check the library. Appino prefers to play suggestively with selected images and cliches of her legend, evoking a seductive beauty who was neither victim nor predator, but a fascinating, frustrating blend of vulnerability and calculation.

This world-premiere piece, presented by On the Boards, is the best work the Seattle-based experimental director Appino has produced in some time. Freed from the script demands of a more conventionally plotted piece (like her 2000 roller-derby mock-musical “Rain City Rollers”), she happily returns here to the semi-abstract, subconscious realm of “Sub Rosa,” her lauded 1993 show based on Greek myth.

But “Invisible Ink” revels in more recent iconography. It takes place in an old Amsterdam hotel where Mata Hari once stayed. (Designed by Dan Corson, it is furnished with oriental rugs and surreal, breast-shaped overhangs.)

Hans Altwies plays the modern-day hotel owner, and Monica Appleby is a distracted young American researcher who secures special permission to stay in Mata Hari’s enshrined former room.

After a rather stolid start, “Invisible Ink” is swept along less by Appino’s deliberately opaque dialogue than by Madsen’s sultry waves of music. Appleby slips into a reverie and “becomes” Mata Hari, her journey accompanied by melismatic vocal lines and sung passages from the biblical “Whore of Babylon” story, to waltzes, tangos, tinkling gamelan sounds and seamless passages of dance. (Much of Madsen’s choreography is inspired by the sinuous and martial folk dances of Indonesia.)

Limber, versatile Altwies plays various consorts in the life of Appleby’s protean Mata Hari, who is glimpsed as a provincial Dutch girl waltzing with her doting father, as the wife of an abusive army officer stationed in Java, and as a self-styled “exotic” dancer who becomes a Paris celebrity. Mata Hari’s talent for flamboyant self-invention is exemplified by her scandalous act (the “dance of destiny”), which fuses authentic Javanese moves, fake mysticism and prurient bump-and-grind. And in her affairs with military men of clashing nationalities, she comes off as both exploited and exploiter.

Using projected titles to indicate time and place, “Invisible Ink” flows along with the help of Frances Kenny’s costuming and Meg Fox’s shadowy illumination. Both evoke a phantom world of faded allure and danger.

“Invisible Ink” is also enhanced by Appleby’s intense, lithesome presence as a troubled modern woman in need of connection, and that mysterious beauty Ms. Hari – whom the actress, fortuitously, strikingly resembles.