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.

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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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The Death of Socrates concluded a program that began with Behemoth, a fascinating 1990 work by Morris. Some people have found it “difficult” or hard to watch (perhaps because it’s 40 minutes long and performed in a silence broken only by the occasional footfall and handclap). Not me. I loved it from the start and I love it now. I could watch the beginning for a long time. The dancers wearing leotards and tights (design by Christine Van Loon) in various combinations of black, mustard, and emerald green stand spaced out unevenly across the stage. The backdrop and the wings have been lifted, so the space looks big and bare. Gradually, not all at the same time, each lifts one leg to the front, holds it there a second, puts it down. What ensues is a series of blocky moves that will later reappear as motifs. While the dancers lift that leg to the side, put it down, make a quarter turn, hunch forward, cock their heads to the side, straighten, arch their backs, raise their arms, Chybowski makes fuzzy little stars of light fly sporadically not only around the back walk but around the front of the Opera House balcony.

If we use the word behemoth at all these days, we’re rarely referring to the unconquerable giant beast that God conjured up in words to knock the fear of Himself into Job, but to any huge, powerful, lumbering thing that’s likely to run us over. Morris’s dance has that weight, but it also has marvelous group patterns, both simple in appearance and compositionally sophisticated, creating their own kind of musical rhythms. Behemoth becomes more vigorous and intricate as it progresses, gathering strength as it rolls along. Morris ingeniously divides and subdivides and recombines the cast. Diagonal parades meet and intersect. Circles form and are reborn as straight lines. When I saw Behemoth 10 years ago, I was reminded of modern dance of the early 1930s, when Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and others were interested in the stripped-down clarity and force of contemporary architecture and design.

Small incidents, however, interpret power and weight in other telling ways. At one point, while almost everyone is jumping and prancing in place, Amber Star Merkens (formerly Amber Darragh) leaps across, drops into a wide-legged stance position, and starts making big, stopped moves. The others gradually exit. When they return, Noah Vinson repeats Merkens’s entry but bursts into different steps. Everyone leaves again. Then they come back. Craig Biesecker hails Vinson, and everyone stares. They go. Vinson lies down. Blackout. When the lights go up, he’s still supine but inching laboriously toward the back of the stage.  

The blackouts become increasingly closer together as the piece lurches along. Various people enter from one side of the stage and immediately leave. Throughout, I keep imagining them all toiling to make something like a patchwork quilt, but not being sure how (or whether) they want the pristine pieces to fit together. Movements seen earlier take on new significance. A line of dancers circle David Leventhal, but when he slowly lifts his foot in that opening gesture and puts it decisively down, they fall as if shot.

The combination of clarity and mystery in the shifting patterns is thrilling. Because no music binds them easily together, the superb performers are wonderfully alert to one another, as if they were engaged in an important secret operation that demands their attention to every angle of their bodies, every formation that they tread into the floor. Lose that precision, and you’re dead. Morris has built something human into what could be a bizarre machine, and when Okamura is alone, right near the end, and she lifts that one leg front again, you want to hand her a medal for bravery.

The two major pieces were separated by a between-courses sort of amuse-bouche: Looky. Perhaps stunned by Behemoth, I didn’t view it quite so clear-sightedly, or with as much mild pleasure and amusement, as I did at its Jacob’s Pillow performance in 2007. With the company costumed in black-and-white items from a number of earlier Morris works, dancing at a minimum, and interaction and reaction primary, the piece has the air of a series of skits or an extended game of charades. In the more intimate atmosphere of the Pillow’s Ted Shawn Theater, it was easier to enter the spirit of the piece.

At Jacob’s Pillow, however, Looky had to be danced to a recording; at BAM, a gleaming disclavier sits in a corner of the stage, its keys jumping up and down under the fingers of an invisible pianist, as it emits five of Kyle Gann’s terrific Mechanical Piano Studies. I should say more than one invisible, incredibly limber-fingered pianist. For instance, describing “Texarkana,” one of the pieces Morris uses, Gann notes on his website that it is “built almost throughout on a fast basic rhythm of 29 in the virtual ‘right hand’ against 13 in the ‘left.’” This comes after he tells us that (for a variety of very good reasons), he “applied [Conlon] Nancarrow’s techniques to an early-jazz, still ragtimish style derived from James Patterson Johnson” that somehow split the difference between Scott Joplin and Earl Hines.” Can you hear it now?

Looky, as I noted back in 2007, seems to be an ironic glance at spectatorship in a number of forms. The scene begins in a museum or gallery where people peruse artwork that’s mostly invisible to us, stare, flirt, and bicker. It’s a nice touch to have them gaze at a tiny white stone that’s spotlit on the floor and pretend that they understand it to be an important work. They also look at art from a different perspective, sketching Okamura as she poses for them. Then they’re watching, or not watching, a shootout in a Hollywood Western bar between swaggering Elisa Clark and Joe Bowie. In the best scene, some of them line a narrow corridor of space, combining to portray a tall, complicated jumble of statuary; others enter to view them with curiosity or boredom. Okamura touches one, and they all tumble. Finally, to “Texarkana,” the spectators switch on their honky-tonk best in order to tell us, “You’re the watchers, look at me!”

I like it that Morris can make a work as profound and tender as Socrates and still relish something as silly-smart as Looky.

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