The Dutch National Ballet premieres Mata Hari, a brand new production based on the turbulent life of Dutch dancer and spy Mata Hari, a truly powerful woman whose drama-filled life inspired many writers and producers. The dancer's life is now finally brought to the stage in a choreography by artistic director Ted Brandsen. A ballet about a Dutch icon is an original and exciting idea, but also a difficult task. The result is a tasteful and harmonious production, but the tension and emotional impact of the piece rely on the performance of leading ballerina Anna Tsygankova.

Mata Hari, born Margarita Gertruida Zelle in 1876 in the Dutch city of Leeuwarden, lived a vibrant life characterised by tragic events. Her parents divorced at a young age, her father disappeared, her mother died and she couldn’t quite adapt to the conventional lifestyle of her family. At the age of 18 she married the much older captain Mcleod, which turned out to be a problematic marriage. After losing her son and divorcing her husband, forced to leave her daughter behind, she began a new life. Despite the tragedies she remained strong and became world famous for her exotic dancing, performing all over the world and making acquaintances with officers and other influential men. But it was not enough. After her fame decreased, she found herself in need of money – and new adventures – and agreed to spy for France during WWI, a function that became fatal. She was accused of being a double spy and sentenced to death.

The life of Mata Hari was not just turbulent but also surrounded by mystery. Was she really guilty of espionage or was she used as a scapegoat? Ted Brandsen decided to focus on Mata Hari’s strong personality and ability to mould herself into different roles rather than making a biographical ballet. Although Brandsen and his artistic team deliberately chose to focus on the most important events in her life, there is still a lot to be told about this woman. Perhaps a bit too much to cover in just 2 hours of dance. The result is a fast-paced and filmic ballet that shows Mata Hari’s youth, marriage, childbirth, loss, divorce and move to Paris in less than an hour. That requires prior knowledge from the spectators and, although smoothly constructed, it gives little time to let the events soak in. It detracts from the depth of the story and its characters as well as the overall emotional impact of the ballet.

But that’s where Anna Tysgankova comes in, a skilled and emotional ballerina who brings the character of Mata Hari to life. Her magnetic presence, strong body language and mysterious aura perfectly suit that of Mata Hari, leaving no question as to why Ted Brandsen chose to create this ballet for her unanswered. She gives a dramatic interpretation of the role, and does so without artifice. Moreover, as an extremely versatile ballerina she is capable of showing the different sides of this complex persona. She is able to differentiate between Mata Hari’s playful love affairs and her true love for the young captain Vadime Maslov; transforming effortlessly from a seductive dancer to a loving and tormented lover and mother.

This is not a very forthright production, but nevertheless very tasteful. The different elements of choreography, set design, costumes and music are in perfect harmony with each other and give the ballet a timeless look and feel. The choreography can be described as modern ballet, using classical technique but with more expressiveness in the upper body and arms.  It mainly gets interesting in the group scenes, when colourful characters of the Moulin Rouge and exotic temple dancers appear on stage to give the choreography a playful and mysterious edge. Tarik O’Regan’s score supports the dance and leads the audience through the story by using leitmotivs, not to mention the important role the music plays in creating the right atmosphere in a rather cold and minimalistic environment. In short, it's a neat production, even too much so. Some extra tension would increase the emotional impact and fully fulfil the great potential of this ballet drama.