Magazine #6: Records by Mathilde Monnier
A Dance Piece from the Lockdown
by Sandra Luzina
A white wall plays an important role in Mathilde Monnier's dance piece Records and becomes a performer with the six dancers. Somewhat more than six meters high, it forms the background of the stage; above the wall we can see video projections of the sky. Mathilde Monnier reacted to the Corona crisis with this setting and establishes a special perspective – between open and closed. "It is this relationship as if you would be looking outside but you are inside. I tried to make this situation completely clear at the beginning," she says.
Mathilde Monnier is one of the formative protagonists of contemporary dance in France. She was the director of Centre national de la danse (CND) in Pantin from 2013 to 2020. Afterwards, she was aching to create her own works again– and her plans were thwarted right away by the pandemic. The idea for the performance Records was developed toward the end of the first lockdown. In France at that time the regulations were extremely strict. "We were not allowed to go beyond a kilometer from our apartment," Mathilde Monnier remembers. "But I had the opportunity to go to my studio. Montpellier is a small city."
Due to the contact restrictions, at first Mathilde Monnier started working alone in her studio – as she frequently did at the beginning of her career. As an artist, she thoroughly enjoyed the forced isolation at the start. Now she had time for research – and for listening extensively to music. During this time Mathilde Monnier discovered the Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan. She listened to different recordings by her. After she listened to an eight-minute excerpt from the opera Le Grand Macabre by György Ligeti with Barbara Hanigan as the singer, Monnier later developed an initial, small choreography. Ligeti's music is not in the piece by Monnier anymore, she replaced it with Luigi Nono's monody Djamila Boupacha for a solo soprano from Canti di Vita e d'Amore.
But Mathilde Monnier is not an artist who needs secludedness in order to be creative. She says she became a choreographer because she liked working with other people, because she wanted to share something. That was the reason why she invited the Taiwanese dancer I-Fang Lin to her studio in order to try out several ideas. This resulted in May 2020 in the first movement material for Records. The other dancers didn't join them until several weeks later.
"Naturally the atmosphere of the Corona pandemic was very present," remembers Mathilde Monnier. "So, I started to work with the wall in my studio. I designed choreographies where I used the wall as a support and as a restricted space."
As a result of the pandemic the space suddenly became smaller, explains Monnier, for no one could travel. "Therefore, I decided to work on this idea: What is our new space in the future? Do we have the same relationship to the space? Will we use the space as we did previously with the many freedoms we had? Or do we have to change our relationship to the space?"
One after another, the six dancers walk onto the stage and look for their position, look for their access to the space. They try different positions of sitting, kneeling, lying flat, and standing. Mathilde Monnier introduces here very simple movements, as if she would want to return to the point of origin of dance. Sometimes the women hold still for longer than a minute in one position. The condition of waiting becomes tangible here. Everyone seems to be damned to doing nothing. Mathilde Monnier confronts her dancers with the emptiness many people felt during the lockdown phase. The feeling of uncertainty can also be sensed, as if the performers have had every element of safety stolen from them, as if they had fallen out of every frame of reference. Eventually the singing of Barbara Hannigan, which rises with a heartrending outcry, tears the performers out of their lethargy.
Over and over again, one dancer leans her back against the wall. The dancers generate then their own rhythms by tapping their feet against the wall – like a tap dance on a vertical surface. The scene is born from a deficit: "We had the floor and the wall – I began with almost nothing," says Monnier. This is like it is with children: when they are bored they play with what they come across at that moment.
The rhythmic repetitions and variations are part of the most impressive passages of the work. But the scenes in front of the wall are also optically appealing, because Monnier composes a fresco, she acts out different notions of the human body and at the same time accentuates the individuality of the dancers, who are dressed identically.
All of them wear blue work pants and sneakers; their torsos, however, are exposed. If women perform onstage bare-breasted this is usually viewed as a sexual signal, explains Monnier. "I wanted to show naked breasts without sexualizing the women, I wanted simply to show the bodies of female dancers." The partial nudity also allows the body, however, to appear fragile.
During the creation process Mathilde Monnier had to struggle with a multitude of difficulties. "Everything was very chaotic," she says. She wasn't certain if the piece would have its premiere. Occasionally she thought she was completely useless as a choreographer. But the feeling that an efficient output wasn't possible also had something positive. "When you do not have to finish a piece, you can simply experiment. You are much freer in your mind," according to Monnier. That she managed to create a dance production despite the adverse circumstances was an important experience for Monnier.
After the Corona restrictions had been lifted, the memories of the lockdowns also faded in the minds of many people. They were happy to return to a normal situation again. But Mathilde Monnier fights against this collective forgetting, she doesn't want to wipe the slate clean so quickly: "It was a privileged time, a time to slow down, a time to pause and ponder." In her work she captures in an abstract manner the physical and emotional conditions during the pandemic. "All that happened and, in perhaps a strange form, will show up again. Everything that was recorded in the body in an unconscious manner," she declared at the premiere in Montpellier in October last year.
The English title Records alludes to this. It refers to recordings, to memories. She liked the conception of re-organizing remembering, says Monnier. "The idea was, you have to do something over and over again in order to remember. Repetition was really important to me."
In Records Mathilde Monnier contrasts a grotesque humor with a formal strictness. The dancers flip out sometimes; they rampage around the stage and while doing so yell out "wow" and "yes." They appear to be avatars from a computer game, or cute cartoon figures.
She wanted to find out what holds us and what holds us back, and so Mathilde Monnier encapsulates the work on Records. When in the end the women dance to the sounds from the jazz rock band The Comet Is Coming, they have had a cathartic experience. At the same time the work formulates the hope that they will discover a new cooperation.