- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2005

Nejla Yatkin is a powerful, arresting figure onstage, a leading dancer on the local scene who performs increasingly all over the world. As a choreographer, she has given herself the role of a lifetime: a solo theater piece she calls “De/Reconstructing Mata Hari.”

At its premiere Saturday evening at Dance Place, she introduced a work that was a tour de force on many levels: in its vivid theatricality; its empathetic projection of the doomed life of the famous World War I spy; its spectacular dance passages; and its imaginative use of lighting, slide projections, costuming and musical accompaniment.

Miss Yatkin was involved with every aspect of the staging, from concept to text, costumes, video projection and lighting. She also had as collaborators Christian Davenport, Alison Ragland, Angela Chavez, Advanced Concepts and Catherine Eliot, who helped plan the exceptional lighting.

The other major player in this drama is a gleaming, billowing white spandex curtain that dominates the stage. It serves as dreamscape, as a womb, a shroud, a vast rolling wave that engulfs Mata Hari and hurls her forward, as a burial cloth and a tomb.

As the dance begins, Miss Yatkin as Mata Hari appears gowned extravagantly in an enormous belle epoque hat and a long white gown, its bodice tightly bound — emblematic of the restrictive society into which she was born. She addresses the audience — words are part of the mix, too: “The fabric is wondrous. The weight of the many yards keeps one from moving too quickly.”

Her movements are small and formal as she moves to the sounds of Debussey’s “Claire de Lune” against a collage of European buildings in the early 1900s. In her picturesque dress, she fits right into the scene.

Words projected on the background tell the story of Mata Hari’s life, of her marriage to a drunken husband, her abandonment, her escape to Paris and reinvention of herself as an exotic dancer. While this is going on, we see shimmering shadows, backlit behind the curtain, as Miss Yatkin changes costume.

She thrusts an arm through a hidden opening in the curtain; the arm slithers, waves and coils like a snake.

The huge draped curtain comes to life, and from its center, Miss Yatkin arises, in a jeweled bra, the white curtain draped from her hips like a giant skirt. Moving sensuously in deep backbends, she emerges out of the curtain’s folds in a gaudy Indian costume and performs a belly dance that sizzles with sensuality, with side-to-side head movements and undulating torso.

As World War I began, Mata Hari’s life spiraled downward; she was thrown in prison and convicted as a spy, which she may or may not have been.

This precipitates a searing solo with Miss Yatkin crawling out from under the curtain, flailing on the ground, her body wracked, before she disappears under the curtain that becomes her shroud.

Words are spoken that sound almost like a last interview before her death by firing squad: “If you had it to do over would you do it again?” “Absolutely,” she answers.

The white curtain flows across the stage, and Miss Yatkin plunges into its depths, falling back into its swirling folds, almost disappearing in its waves, rising up again, seemingly floating on its crest. The effect is magical, hallucinatory.

She leans against the elastic curtain, her body thrust forward like a figurehead on a ship’s prow, then gathers the material and winds it around her body, stretching within its confines in a way that recalls Martha Graham’s “Lamentation.” The drape totally encloses her, like a winding cloth.

Then there is darkness; church bells chime.

This is not the end, however; there is an epilogue. Weaving through this life of Mata Hari is Miss Yatkin’s own story — how she, living with her Turkish family in Germany, felt herself to be, like Mata Hari, an outsider. She spoke of how her journey through Mata Hari’s life had freed her own.

As intriguing as that revelation is, blending the two stories tends to shortchange both. For all its vibrant staging, Mata Hari’s plight doesn’t totally come alive, and Miss Yatkin’s story is so compelling it deserves a focus of its own. Also, gluing them together requires an overabundance of text.

Dance reasserted itself in Miss Yatkin’s epilogue. To the music of a Bach cello suite, she unleashed a soaring solo, joyous and unfettered, a remarkable affirmation of the strength and power of art.

***1/2

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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