House of Dames

February 1, 2013

Monica Appleby danced the title role in the House of Dames piece Invisible Ink: Destiny and the Dance of Mata Hari.
Chris Bennion

House of Dames

On the Boards
Behnke Center for Contemporary Performance

Seattle, Washington

January 17?27

Reviewed by Gigi Berardi

Nikki Appino’s ten-year-old company, House of Dames, which began as a multidiscipline cabaret, continues to promote its bold point of view with the premiere of Invisible Ink: Destiny and the Dance of Mata Hari. An earlier work, Djinn, was performed in 1997 in a 25,000-square-foot abandoned warehouse at the Sand Point Naval Base in Seattle; ticket-holders were shuttled to that performance in a bus with blacked-out windows. Rain City Rollers, created and performed in 2000, featured ten women on roller skates performing in a 40,000-square-foot warehouse. Invisible Ink, premiering in the newly refurbished Behnke Center for Contemporary Performance, seems tame by comparison.

Invisible Ink
tells the story of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, otherwise known as Mata Hari, who was executed as a German spy in World War I. Reportedly, she kept a book of her press clippings as well as a book of hundreds of letters from her European paramours, mostly military men. Relatively little else is known about the exotic dancer. Observers report she was inventive, resourceful, and elusive. And so, writer-director Nikki Appino, choreographer Wade Madsen, composer and pianist Wayne Horvitz, and set designer Dan Corson have constructed her story, with actor-dancer Monica Appleby as Mata Hari and Monica, her contemporary counterpart. Hans Altweis played a cast of male characters?a father, a husband, a Russian lover, and the contemporary Hans?who parade in and out of her life. The music and dance, together with the songs and chants of vocalist Jessika Skeletalia, provide much of the narrative.

The simple set consisted of period furniture, a fabric ceiling, and a carpet covering the walls as well as the floor, sweeping up the edges of the stage to give an opulent feel to the room that was supposedly once Mata Hari’s. It functioned as both contemporary lodging and a window on the past of the enigmatic performer. A twenty-first-century woman, Monica, inhabits the space, supposedly as a forensic scientist but actually to undertake a journey to unmask her true identity?a theme familiar to most of Appino’s oeuvre. Hans is meant to assist.

Kudos to the musicians, violist Eyvind Kang and clarinetist and guitarist Doug Wieselman, who were joined onstage by composer/pianist Horvitz. Horvitz’s compositions evoked Mata Hari’s stormy childhood, distant marriage, adventurous travels, and Indonesian artistic influences. The haunting strains of the viola suggested something of the separate lives she and her husband lived. Other scenes were carried with the musicians playing almost-familiar Indonesian tunes, yet the only traditional piece in the work was a Javanese song sung a cappella by Skeletalia.

The piece opened with a choreographed fencing match, with the kickboxing-like sparring becoming a motif, and heralding the notes that appear above the stage, “2002, The Kings Hotel?Amsterdam,” “1905, Museum of Oriental Art, Paris.” The tango and waltz that Appleby and Altweis performed were a kind of shorthand to mark the passage of time (from one epoch to the next), space (from northern and central Europe to Java), and human development (childhood, adolescence, professional dancer).

The star of the piece was Appleby, who, bedecked in silks, jewels, and stunning headdresses, danced as she stripped, all body parts undulating as lights accented her moves and moods. For Mata Hari, dance was a poem, and every gesture one of its words.

Invisible Ink
is a dance piece and a music piece, played together. The score successfully approximated Indonesian tones with piano; its imitation of Indonesian percussion created, like Mata Hari herself, something from nothing, although her imitation of the real thing served her well for most of her 41 years.