Fragments: Vers Mathilde (Claire Denis, 2005)

Whenever you make an incursion into a space, that space is altered. I like this idea of leaving a scratch because that space is altered by that scratch after. It’s like a piece of paper that has a mark on it and is no longer blank[…] In other words, the memory leaves a mark. The mark is always there. And the memory […] So this mark leaves a mark on the body. On mine, in any case.

–Mathilde Monnier

Vers Mathilde is a documentary directed by Claire Denis about French choreographer Mathilde Monnier as she rehearses for a production of “Déroutes.”

Dance fascinates me, as it centers the body but also seems to transcend it. I have always wanted to escape my body.

A body writhing on a hardwood floor, the shadow of a hand.

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The connection and camaraderie of dance rehearsals. The social aspect of dance, bodies coming into contact (makes me think of my own failed attempt at dance, my own physical isolation.)

You can visibly see how a dance production is put together, unlike, for instance, how a book is put together, since it exists only in the mind of the writer.

We’re so alone in our bodies, but dance seems to be a way for us to share our bodies, to convey the inside through the outside.

Mathilde dancing spasmodically to PJ Harvey’s “A Place Called Home” and other songs on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. I go to youtube and watch the music video. PJ in a glittery dress, her own body moving to the rhythms of the song. This is something I like about watching movies on my laptop–I can pause, go explore, make associations and connections.

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One day
I know
We’ll find
A place of hope
Just hold on to me
Just hold on to me

I end up saving the album on spotify to listen to later. I find a documentary about Mathilde on Medici TV, but it’s only available to subscribers. I end up registering on the site even though I don’t subscribe.

I’ve become gloriously side-tracked, pulled into the magic vortex of the internet.

A scene of dancers rehearsing. A man and woman intertwined, arms wrapped around each other, legs entangled, hands making indentations in flesh. I think about touch often, how my life is defined by a lack of touch, a distance from people, how unloved and undesired I feel. Dance is so intimate, particularly when you are dancing with a partner. I don’t know what that’s like.

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The delicacy and violence of touch, the act of invading a body, colliding with it, like the scratch Mathilde mentions at the beginning of the movie, how we leave marks on one another.

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The only other documentary I’ve seen about a choreographer is Wim Wenders’s Pina, a tribute to Pina Bausch. Denis’s film is not an homage. It’s a documentation of a living artist’s creative process.

The labor of dance, the physical exertion of it. The labor of art. We don’t talk enough about that–how the body works and toils to create.

I respect dancers in the same way I respect actors, how they use their bodies and faces to convey abstract emotions. Dancers are free of words completely, free of language. They bypass it. They seem more pure, alive inside of rhythms.

Denis records private whisperings, moments of Mathildes’s doubts and insecurities.

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It’s astounding how open the dancer is to scrutiny and criticism, how they conform themselves to the choreographer’s vision. They lose themselves, must discard their ego. They are the choreographer’s creation.

The strangeness of dancing, how we move our bodies in odd ways. It’s liberating to dance alone and not care how strange you look, only needing the music to engulf you. Mathilde dances alone, doing arm exercises. She looks manic and possessed, the way I imagine Lucia Joyce or Zelda Fitzgerald danced.

I pause the film and start reading about Lucia and Zelda. Both were overshadowed by the more famous male writers in their lives. Lucia’s father was James Joyce; she also dated Samuel Beckett at one time. Zelda married F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even now, the men preoccupy us while the women fade into the background. Biographies try to remedy this injustice. In The New Yorker, I find a review of the biography Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake by Carol Loeb Shloss. I read this part with interest:

When Lucia was fifteen, she began taking dance lessons, mostly of the new, anti-balletic, “aesthetic” variety, and this became her main interest during her teens and early twenties. She started at the Dalcroze Institute in Paris, then moved on to study with the toga-clad Raymond Duncan, Isadora’s older brother. Eventually, she hooked up with a commune of young women who performed now and then, in Paris and elsewhere, as Les Six de Rythme et Couleur. However briefly, Lucia was a professional dancer. She is said to have excelled in sauvage roles. But eventually she left this group, as she left every group. (I count nine dance schools in seven years.) In part, that may have been due to lack of encouragement from her family. Nora reportedly nagged Lucia to give up dancing. According to members of the family, she was jealous of the attention the girl received. As for Joyce, Brenda Maddox says he felt “it was unseemly for women to get on the stage and wave their arms about.”

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Dance, for women especially, can be a way to access freedom that is denied them in other parts of their lives. Perhaps Lucia found something liberating in movement. She was forced to move often in her youth to many different countries. She was never settled until, of course, she ended up at a mental institution for the last thirty years of her life. Maybe dancing gave her an outlet for the rage, the emotion, the strangeness of her self.

I go on reading and come across this:

Finally, after seven years’ training in the left wing of dance, Lucia bolted to the right wing, and embarked on a backbreaking course of ballet instruction with Lubov Egorova, formerly of the Maryinsky Theatre, in St. Petersburg. This was a terrible idea. Professional ballet dancers begin their training at around the age of eight. Lucia was twenty-two. She worked six hours a day, but of course she couldn’t catch up, and, in her discouragement, she concluded that she was not physically strong enough to be a dancer of any kind—a decision, Joyce wrote to a friend, that cost her “a month’s tears.”

A story all too similar to Zelda Fitzgerald, who also took up ballet in her 20s and relentlessly pushed her body to become a world-class dancer that it could not be. On a PBS website, I find this paragraph:

In 1928, she decided to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a professional ballerina, and began taking lessons in Paris from a famous dancer. At the late age of 27, three years of intense ballet work (eight hours a day) damaged her health, and prompted her first mental breakdown, diagnosed as “nervous exhaustion”, in 1930. Zelda was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, and would reside in and out of hospitals for the rest of her life.

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It’s easy to focus on the tragedy of Lucia and Zelda but maybe what’s more important is to realize that both women tried to pursue their passions. They flung themselves into dance with all their obsession and manic energy and, at rare moments, they must have felt a deep, overwhelming transcendence, that sense of losing and finding the self all at once within art.

Denis often focuses on the hands of Mathilde and the dancers.

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At one point, a girl violently dances. Her bare feet pound the floor. It’s glorious, this controlled frenzy. I wonder what it’s like to be that girl, to feel that kind of power in my own body, to be so raw and strong and intense. She crosses some unseen boundary where the dancing dissolves and there is only life. Life as it is revealed by art.

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