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Winter 2011

Socratic Questions

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Jeff Seroy

choreographed by Mark Morris
to music by Erik Satie and performed
by the Mark Morris Dance Group.
BAM, February 2010;
Cal Performances, October 2010.

Was Socrates a suicide? Not if you see his death as ordered by the state. Was he brave? Cato the Elder didn’t think so, nor did many Romans, who admired martial arts over philosophy and felt Socrates should have spoken more softly and carried a bigger stick. Was he a patriot who sacrificed himself to the rule of law? Or the political fall guy for Alcibiades, the handsome young aristocrat who pursued Socrates and was, in some sense at least, his lover? And while we’re on the topic, was Socrates gay? He had a wife and children, but in The Symposium he famously lectures on the superiority of homosexual love (and in this he spoke for mainstream Athenian practice). Montaigne and many in the Renaissance held Socrates to be a model of self-knowledge. A century later, Voltaire thought him a fool because staying alive is “putting first things first,” while Jacques-Louis David’s iconic painting presents Socrates as a heroic revolutionary struck down in his prime. His entourage and martyrdom have invited comparisons with Jesus.

We cannot know which of these figures, if any, was in the mind of Erik Satie when he composed Socrate in Paris in the midst of World War One; nor can we be sure which appealed to Mark Morris, who created choreography to the last section of Satie’s piece in 1983, and to the entire three movements in his Socrates of early 2010. In Satie’s case, there may not be much point to the question. Though the composer had long been attracted to ancient Greece—his best-known works are Trois Gymnopaedies and Six Gnossienes—the idea for Socrate came from Winnaretta Singer, an American “dollar princess” who married into the French aristocracy and, as Princesse de Polignac, became an important patron of modern music. Singer had traveled to Greece in 1914, then studied ancient Greek, and in 1916 she invited Satie to dinner with the idea of commissioning a piece about Socrates for female voices and chamber ensemble. The text was drawn (it’s not clear by whom, but Singer and Satie spent much time plotting together) from three of Plato’s dialogues: Alcibiades’ drunken praise of Socrates from The Symposium; a pastoral gambol, in which Socrates and Phaedrus wade barefoot in a stream, from The Phaedrus; and, from The Phaedo, the tick-tock account of Socrates’ last day.

Socrates’ placid temperament is mirrored in the steady rhythms and moderate dynamics of Satie’s score. As in French classical drama, where extreme states are declaimed through orderly couplets in a limited vocabulary, Satie’s short musical motifs for each section repeat, disappear, and return in a constant stream. Their rhythm is nearly autonomic and settles into the body the way that pace and breath become regulated through steady exertion. This is the motor behind the music’s emotional power: it implies inexorable movement toward what we know is a tragic ending. Understatement magnifies the poignancy. Taken from texts devoted to the intellectual discussion of abstract ideas, these pieces are anomalies: earthy, direct, bound by fact and feeling.

Neither of Mark Morris’s two versions of Socrates includes a character who is clearly Socrates. In the 1983 choreography to the last movement only, six male dancers enter, one at a time, execute a “fractured” canon followed by a section performed in unison, and exit again in canon. In Morris’s 2010 rendering of all three movements, a larger company is cast in equally weighted roles; there are no leads, and little differentiation of any kind. Steps are built directly on top of the score and, like the music, the choreography is organized into a limited vocabulary of short motifs. Even-tempered and nearly uneventful in appearance, the dance is in fact rich with ambiguity, finite in time and space but not in meaning—just like the dance’s nominal subject.

In the first section, dancers are paired. Each holds one end of a braided cord about two feet long. As these bonded dyads lead, impede, and play with each other, they suggest many things—lovers, friends, masters and slaves, interlocutors, contestants. At stage right rear, silhouetted against a white background, a dancer wearing a mantle stands still, overseeing the action. His female counterpart stands stage left against a black backdrop. Are they deities or prefects? Soon they recline in postures nearly identical to the recumbent pose Nijinsky was photographed in from Afternoon of a Faun. In front of them, the decorous agon of pairs continues. Every so often, a distraught woman with a floating scarf crosses the stage, sometimes alone, sometimes led by a dancer who seems to know where he is going. They each hold the hand of a third dancer who walks between them. Is this Socrates’ wife, Xanthippe, child in tow, being led to or away from her husband’s trial? Perhaps, then, this is dance’s corollary to Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”—day-to-day life carries on before us, all business and busyness, while a riff of anxiety indicates drama unfolding somewhere else.

In the next section, dancers in twos and threes flow across the stage, almost always in the same direction, like the stream which Socrates and Phaedrus visit in the text. The dancers use airy hops, leaps, and turns; sometimes they walk together, arms up or out, entwined in flattened, frieze-like patterns. We are nearly back in Satie’s day, in that Morris here refreshes early modern dance’s love affair with Hellenism. His dancers are at ease, propelled in gently swirling currents. Though they constantly move, there is no development. One’s sense is of suspended time, the alive stillness sometimes felt in nature. Instead of miming the text, Morris creates a dance whose texture conveys the sensory experience of riparian idyll.

In the last section, the dancers are organized to enchanting effect in groups of five. Sometimes one group is on stage, sometimes two or three. The dance motifs are sometimes circles, sometimes lines or tableaux. In one recurring motif, five dancers pace languidly outward from their circle’s center, then back in, then reach towards another’s shoulder (but not quite!), then pace backwards in the circle: here is grief both private and shared. Their arms float outwards like wings and fold back into center, hands clasped. At times they seem to be searching for an answer, as they open their torsos to the sky, then open them again facing groundward. One dancer momentarily assumes the posture of Socrates from David’s painting—a finger points to the sky, the other hand reaches for the cup—while the rest crowd around. Soon all three groups form identical tableaux, with four dancers cradling the head and leg of a fifth who’s lying down: it’s a deposition from the cross times three.

The text arrives at the moment when Socrates recognizes that feeling has left his body. Five dancers turn their heads, each with an arm tossed across the face on the word “no.” Strikingly, text, movement, and music line up: this is emphatic, stirring. Socrates’ last words are spoken, and a legion now—fifteen dancers—face the audience to present the pose from David’s painting. Gesture, words, and the massing of bodies are strongly declarative. One at a time, the dancers lie down, as if for the end. But on the score’s last two beats, they come back to life: in unison, they lift their heads and raise their legs off the ground, one slightly above the other. It’s the “deposition” we saw minutes ago, now universal and unsupported. Cumulatively—one Socrates, then three, five, fifteen—a narrative at last emerges.

Satie was disappointed by the lukewarm reception given his premiere. He had attempted to create something ancient and new, and though in the long term he may have succeeded—Francis Poulenc presciently said this piece marked “the beginning of horizontal music that will succeed perpendicular music”—his audience came expecting to laugh. Satie had become famous for his ton de blague. Morris is similarly much cherished as a cut-up and rebel. He’s often made such endings, where one or more dancers will move unexpectedly after the “end.” Extraneous, incongruous, these instances play for laughs, unburden the audience, and offer closure. In Socrates, the effect is entirely different: it’s unsettling, in keeping with the laconic last notes of the score, and it opens out the dance. But to what? An afterlife? (Socrates believed the soul lived on.) Towards a future where Socrates’ words and example speak over centuries? Does it express submission, and surprise at what can come of that? We are left with possibilities, and deeply moved. Morris’s transparent love for early-twentieth-century modernism’s infatuation with classicism—his neo-classicism, if you will—has produced his most powerful work in years.

Jeff Seroy is senior vice president at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He last wrote for Threepenny on the film version of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man.

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