Lest We Forget

As a modern burlesque performer, I have often times taken my civil liberties for granted. It’s hardly shocking, but it does us good to remember from time to time where we’ve come from, where we are going,and that as artist – striptease or otherwise – our role in social commentary. What we take for granted today was yesterday’s fight. In the tales I’ve heard from the old generation of dancers from the 40′s, 50′s 60′s and 70′s it’s been a strange road. But was it always this way, and such an uphill battle?

Looks to be so.

I feel odd inviting these comparisons, but I think there is something strange that happens when one gets a certain level of the spotlight shone onto them. The social attitudes do a lot to shape these in the weird ways and where it has been documented that you can literally be a victim of your own success. While I don’t know a modern story as fantastic or odd as the one that I’m about to share with you.

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in a Dutch city that I myself have performed striptease in. In Leeuwarden on August 7th, 1875 this lady made her debut and started off a life that would have a profound influence on the theatre, multi culturalisim and would capture the public’s flight of fancy. The beginning of her life was inconspicous enough, but it was when she married a Dutch Colonial Army Captain and relocated to the Dutch East Indies (or what is now Indonesia after we all got over that whole colonialisim bullshit) things took a turn for the interesting. Annoyed with her alcoholic husband who openly kept a concubine in their home on Java, Margaretha instead studied local culture, including dance, and went on to adopt a local handle, Mata Hari, Indonesian for ‘the sun’ and literally meaning ‘the eye of the day’. However, the gap between her and her husband grew and they moved back to The Netherlands in 1902 and finally divorced in 1907. Her last child died from complications of syphilis and with her divorce and her offspring no more she plunged herself into a further unconventional life that existed alongside the arts.

In 1903 Margaretha struggled to make a living as an artist’s model in Paris. She began to work as a trick rider in the circus, and later exotic dancing. By 1905 with the use of her dances she had learned overseas she had begun to attract the attention of the public as a combination of contemporary dance and ‘Orientalisim’ which was having popular influence on fashionable and artist circles in Europe.She popularized ‘fleshlings’ among performers, which were flesh coloured body stockings, to give the appearance of nudity, and was said to be promiscuous and a flirt, though there’s not been any solid evidence of that beyond her projected stage persona. By 1910 she was well-known enough to have inspired copycat acts, but had secured herself as a courtesan to the arts world for her contributions alongside other well known dancers of her time such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth St.Denis.

The real trouble manifested itself for her with the onset of WWI. The neutrality of The Netherlands allowed the Mata Hari, as a Dutch citizen, to cross boarders freely. In order to circumvent the battlefields in her travels, she would travel through both Spain and Britain. As a well known performer, her celebrity attracted attention of the media, which in the throes of the war were longing for some small crumb of glamour and escapism…  At Fairmouth, England she was arrested off of the steamer ship she was travelling on via Spain and charged by Scotland Yard with espionage. She had admitted at one point to working for French Intelligence, though it has never truly been established that it was something that was substantiated or whether as Mata Hari she was spinning tales in a effort to further her exotic background. It is also commonly considered a possibility that  French authorities were using her in such a way, but she did not acknowledge this due to the embarrassment and international backlash it could cause.

In January 1917, a German military group in Spain transmitted radio messages to Berlin that described the helpful activities of a German spy, who’s code-name was H-21. The French intelligence agents interpreted H-21 as Mata Hari in their intercepted transmissions. While the Germans claimed the messages were in a code that had been broken by the French (when they were not, it was by the British) it left the accusations that those messages were contrived.  Is is interesting to note that this same code, which the Germans believed was unbreakable was also the same code used to send the Zimmerman Telegram. When this was intercepted a few weeks later, it was the prompt that led to the United States involvement in the war against Germany.

Mata Hari, caught in the middle of this shitstorm for a tall tale and found herself arrested at her hotel on Feb. 13th 1917 and led to trial. She was accused of spying for Germany and with that was found responsible for the deaths of 50,000 soldiers. While the French and the British both suspected her, they could neither produce definite evidence against her. She was caught with ‘secret ink’ in her room, which was considered incriminating during that time, despite her arguments that it was part of her stage make up. The kangaroo court found her guilty and she met her end by French firing squad October 15th, 1917. She was 41 years old.

It has hotly been contested over the years her innocence, with governments trying to obscure facts,Women’s Studies groups using it as education on the example of a scapegoat, and everything in between. While Mata Hari’s body was not claimed by any family members, it was accordingly used for medical study. Her head was embalmed and kept in the Museum of Anatomy in Paris, but in 2000, archivists discovered that the head had disappeared, possibly as early as 1954, when the museum had been relocated. Records dated from 1918 show that the museum also received the rest of the body, but none of the remains could later be accounted for. After entertaining the world, first with her graceful movements then with the drama of her trial to the moment when her body absorbed the firing squad’s bullets (she refused a blindfold) she became the embodiment of legend. Her story thus bore fruit as the beginning of many an idea of a femme fatale, working as both an exotic dancer and as a spy.

It is a constant reminder that, as artists, that we are vunerable to the whims of our world governments, and that we have a responsibility as a greater public to hold those elected officials accountable for their actions. One such artist as I write this is suffering one such fate.  Remy Couture, a special effects artist from Montreal, starts his trial today. He is facing counts of ‘moral corruption’ for being too good at his job. “People have long had entertainment in the most visceral of forms from Gladiator times, but now we have surpassed the actual death in gore with the work of incredible artists who can make pieces that give us that same sense of mortality with horror and fear.

However, in Remy’s case, his work is considered a crime. Another issue of scapegoating horror in frustrations of real life issues, instead we see artists being attacked. Censorship in one of it’s most ridiculous forms.

You can support Remy her: http://www.supportremy.com/. You can make a difference by sharing his story. Here is the story of his arrest.: http://www.supportremy.com/en/remy-couture-arrest/remy-couture-arrest.html”

(Source: Sylvia and Jen Soska)

Remy Couture

Remember that Remy, Pussy Riot, and the makers of Father’s Day are all facing these moderns day witch hunts. Please, do not let them fall to the same fate as Mata Hari. We have a voice as the public, but it only works if we use it.


Little Miss Risk









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One Response to Lest We Forget

  1. Wow! Thank you for sharing this.

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