In the Berlin Freie Szene, multidisciplinary approaches are the new normal. It is not uncommon for dancers to train in-depth in more than one art form and bring their acquired skill-sets to the stage. Sometimes, the switch from one to the other discipline even happens within the same performance. Manon Parent is both dancer and musician: in the final scene of Sergiu Matis’s latest piece, she seamlessly alternates between complex movement sequences and playing classical violin. Captivated by her authentic stage presence and virtuosity in both crafts, I invited her to take part in Tanzhybriden, a series of interviews researching multidisciplinary approaches to performance.
In “Hopeless” by Sergiu Matis, you danced, sang, acted and played the violin! How did this come about?
When Sergiu mentioned he was going to use the Beethoven pastoral symphony, we half-seriously joked about me playing it. Just one week before the premiere, we actually tried it out – I picked up my violin and they were like “yeah”! In Sergiu’s work, although the structure is very precise, the material is generated in the moment. Even the more classical elements that you saw are full-on improvised. What I am playing is newly generated classical repertoire based on unconsciously embodied knowledge.
You trained in contemporary dance at the Superior Paris Conservatory and in classical violin. Would you consider your training in each discipline to be equal?
During my time at the conservatory, I danced for six hours a day and then practiced violin in the evenings. Dance, school and then violin, and at the weekend violin. That was my whole childhood. At 18, I came out of the institution and was thrown into the real world. Everyone kept telling me: “You have to choose – you can’t do music and dance, it’s ridiculous – it’s too much!” So I kept shifting from one to the other. One year I was graduating in violin, the next I was dancing in New York. Then I had a phase in which I only made experimental, electronic music with self-built instruments. I got back into the dance scene though music by working as a composer and improvising live on stage.
And do you feel your training in each discipline is equal now?
I feel that, professionally, I have struck a balance. In addition to dancing, I compose music for films and TV shows, and I have a band … Sometimes I have to accept that one thing is taking up more of my time, and then, later, the other. I think I will spend my life saying: “Oh, I miss dancing”, or “Oh, I miss playing music”. But sometimes they’re united, which is cool. It’s about navigating these two currents.
How important do you consider technique to be?
Technique is about feeling comfortable. Agility and muscle training, which is involved in both dance and music, is important in order to be available to advance on to something else, to not stay at that level. It’s about being able to forget some aspects of the work. Right now, I think presence on stage is an outcome of travelling between the different layers within a performance. The physical plane is much broader than just technique – and then there are the emotional, spatial, and musical planes. The more comfortable you are in your practice, the more you can navigate between layers during your performance and tap into a larger spectrum of ways in which to touch people.
I like how you use the word ‘practice’. The term ‘technique’ seems to be loaded with an institutional or historical understanding of what is ‘correct’, whereas ‘practice’ remains more open.
In that regard, I’m tempted to say that technique doesn’t matter – but it would be a bit spoiled of me to say that, because I’m really based in it. I’ve been training my technique since the age of four. So, it’s a little bit tricky. What I can say, is that, in my case, my technique has allowed me to be able to achieve things that I didn’t know I could do. When I started writing music for TV, I was asked to write some string arrangements. I was new to this and I was never good at music theory, but I realised that I was able to do it because of my daily practice, hard training, rigour, and discipline. It was in me. It was like this weird storage. Like being able to speak.
So do you think that technique is necessary for performers to have as a base?
It depends what your purpose is. String arrangements are totally related to classical music, because it’s about harmony. Each technique can be used for something different. The most useful thing for me, of what I observe now, is to have an analytical eye. If you can understand the relationship of forces in your body you can also build your own body. When freelancing and going from one piece to another, you are asked to perform different tasks. Sergiu’s work, for example, is very different to the slow-motion work I’m doing with another project at the same time. So you need a basic understanding of anatomy and your own body. The technique you need is knowledge and constant learning – the constant updating of that knowledge.
There’s a great saying: ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’. By delving into more than one craft, do you think you miss out on the possibility of becoming a master?
I don’t think you should ever attempt to become a master. I think it’s a false ideal. And if you end up somehow managing it, you shouldn’t even notice it. It’s about following your interest. Are you obsessed with becoming a better artist or are you just a human who wants to experience different things in life? I find those who go on stage and throw themselves into doing something they have never done before just as respectable as those who keep up a practice for their whole life. They’re taking a massive risk which requires a different kind of mastery: the mastering of their emotions, or of their ego. Seriousness, devotion, and pertinence are not in the artistic object, they’re inside the artist.
Is it easy to switch from dance to music on stage?
Well, physically it requires something. In the scene you mentioned in Sergiu’s piece, I’m shaking and tired, because we danced a lot before, so it requires some focus. But I actually aim for there to be no switch. Even when I don’t play music, I try to be in the music as much as possible. So when I play I just play. It’s still a work in progress for me, I know I’m not there yet. Sometimes I just have to tune in to the sensation of the bow and the violin. It’s the same as if I’m bending my toes – I have to bring my consciousness there. It’s all about the texture and the sensation. And I think that if there is a switch, it means that you are dealing with a representation of something. Because otherwise you are there, you are one person, and there is nothing to switch. For me, this practice is one practice.
So it comes back to presence?
Yes, presence and an awareness of all of these layers. It depends on the needs of the piece. For me, being on stage is about being available. And for that, I come back to the basics: it’s about breathing, mastering your body, being open to the space. And it all goes through the body. It goes through you, through your brain, through your flesh.
What would your ideal training session look like?
I would start with tuning into my body with some yoga postures or a Feldenkrais session. Then I would probably do a voice exercise, as we hold a lot of tension in the chest, the throat, and in the mouth. After that I would pick up my violin or anything else that is lying around – I have some other instruments. That would be a good training. And then ideally I would have my friends show up and we could all improvise together.
Yes! And then it’s sauna time.
Tanzhybriden interview series researches multidisciplinary approaches to contemporary performance by interviewing three artists working across the hybrid disciplines of dance/music, dance/writing, and dance/set design. Next up is Tim Etchells, who is sure to provide some valuable insights into the relationship between text and performance.