Message From Mark Morris: Look, but Don’t Forget to Listen

In December 1983, Mark Morris, a 29-year-old, getting-hot-fast choreographer from Seattle, appeared at Dance Theater Workshop with a small group of performers. Some of the pieces on the program were witty, some touching; all were inventive, all musical. The Death of Socrates, set to the final section of Erik Satie’s Socrate, revealed in the most abstract, yet curiously tender ways the scene recounted by Phaedo in Plato’s Dialogues: the philosopher’s death by government-ordained poisoning. Six young men entered one by one to join a slowly progressing frieze, their sculptural movements suggesting both the comradeship of Socrates’s young disciples and the flow of ideas he generated. By the end, as I remember, all had exited but one.

Twenty-seven years later, Morris has revisited Satie’s music—music that the often rambunctious, vanguard, fin-de-siècle composer intended to convey a kind of essential clarity and purity (Satie used the word whiteness to described what he was after). Morris has chosen not to use the version of Socrate for orchestra and four female singers who voice the text (in Victor Cousin’s French translation) that Plato gave to Alcibiades, Socrates, Phaedrus, and Phaedo. Instead he builds his new work on the setting for piano and a single soprano that premiered in 1918, with the composer at the piano. 

For his grave and beautiful new Socrates, Morris has used all his 15 dancers and all three sections of Satie’s score: “Portrait of Socrates,” “On the Banks of the Ilissus,” and “Death of Socrates.” At the BAM premiere, Colin Fowler played the piano, and the words were delivered by a high tenor (the wonderful Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, who played the froggy heroine in Morris’s 1997 production of Rameau’s opera Platée)In this spare, delicate piece of music, the text often floats with the simplicity of a conversation above the sometimes inexorable walking of the piano part.

Details

Mark Morris Dance Company
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
February 23 through 27

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Although an English translation of the text appears in supertitles, Morris isn’t telling a story in the usual sense. Rather, he has taken the already selective narrative of Socrates’s life and death that Satie chose as his inspiration and made the images it conjures up fly softly about the stage—alighting now on this individual, now on this group. Five or so clustered dancers may suggest Socrates’s companions when they exit with this one’s arm draped across on that one’s shoulder or two holding hands. Or when a group forms a kind of living couch on which one of them, a temporary Socrates, sits. This last, with the seated performer raising one hand, index finger pointed at the ceiling, is taken from Jacques-Louis David’s famous 1787 painting, The Death of Socrates, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum. But such pictorial moments arise only briefly out of the general flow before they sink back into it.

Martin Pakledinaz’s variously cut short, draped chitons, too, draw their colors (rust, blue-gray, dull green, and gold) from David’s painting. A longer, floating cape— worn now by Maile Okamura, now by Bradon McDonald, now by someone else—may be meant to identify Socrates’s wife Xantippe. The black curtain that in the beginning covers part of the pale backdrop also suggests the darkness at one side of the picture, while Michael Chybowski’s lighting conveys the beam that pierces Socrates’ prison as well as the sunny sky of Socrates and Phaedrus’s conversational walk by the river.

As in his smaller-scale 1983 work, Morris’s choreography evokes the Greek bas reliefs that circled the facades of ancient temples. Whether tugging each other along in pairs, with partners separated by a short length of knotted rope, or leaping across the stage, or moving within a procession, the dancers often have the slightly flattened, semi-two-dimensional look of those reliefs. And the reclining pose seen in the friezes from the Parthenon lurks in the choreographic patterns.  

As is often the case when Morris is choreographing to music that involves lyrics, he slips in the occasional gestural reference. In Socrates, these references are subtle. You may notice dancers knocking at the imaginary door to Socrates’s prison or lying down, as Socrates and Phaedrus do when they reach a shady spot by the river. But your eyes have to work quickly to catch the moment when crickets are mentioned, and the performers, busily dancing, for a second rub their elbows together.

What happens, despite the lack of a conventional dramatic narrative, is that the piece becomes increasingly, startlingly moving. A great thinker and teacher is being made to drink hemlock because he has supposedly corrupted youths with his ideas, but the death isn’t his alone, and his ideas live despite that nobly accepted end. The cup of poison is passed quickly from hand to hand, as if the delegated prison servant has suddenly multiplied and merged with the anguished disciples. When Socrates is advised to walk until his legs feel heavy, everyone walks with increasingly laden steps. When Fouchécourt sings the quiet words that signal the philosopher’s death, one of the dancers (Dallas McMurray) leaves the stage, but the others slowly, one at a time, crumple and drop. On the last notes, in darkening light, they raise their heads and legs slightly off the floor, like sculpted marble warriors fallen in battle or toppled from their pediments. 

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