Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Anatomy of a Morris misfire

Pretty vacant: Mark Morris's Socrates
I've always been a fan of Mark Morris, so I was surprised as anyone that his big premieres at Celebrity Series last weekend proved so boring.  I was even more shocked, however, to read the praises heaped on them, particularly Socrates, the elaborate, exquisitely pretentious pantomime that concluded the program.  The gap between these kudos and Morris's actual achievement was all the more troubling because it reminded one how rarely actual criticism surfaces in dance reviewing (almost as rarely as it does in theatre reviewing!).  For the slow, onstage death of Socrates illuminated a central, critical issue in the Morris oeuvre  - and to pretend otherwise is to avoid any accurate insight into his work, and mistake what's truly great about this particular artist.

The first offerings of the evening - The Muir, set to ballads and folk songs arranged by none other than Beethoven, and Festival Dances, to a piano piece by Johann Hummel, were charming in their way, but also felt overly familiar from their opening steps - they were simply too much like many other Morris dances to make much of an impression.  Both were roundelays for several couples, romantic and ironic by turns, that floated between modes of balletic, modern, and folk dance.  They were subtle, wry, and definitely had their moments, but you could feel Morris treading water in them.

Then came Socrates, set to Erik Satie's un-categorizable Socrate (the composer himself called it a "symphonic drama in three parts," but it's obviously not a drama) - and I knew from the opening moments that Morris was in deep trouble.  He has claimed to have been drawn to the work for decades - and if so, this amounted to a kind of subconscious death wish; for Socrate is, rather obviously, precisely the kind of music to which Morris cannot choreograph.

But let me explain a bit more about Morris, Satie, and this particular piece.  Morris, as has been widely discussed, returns again and again to two deep sources of inspiration: his early training in communal (read: folk) dance, and his intuitive understanding (and adoration) of classical structure.  Community and structure; those are his pole stars.

But Satie's aesthetic was almost as far from this formulation as you can get - he was an eccentric kind of semi-recluse whose claim to fame rests on a series of deceptively simple (but deeply de-stabilizing) musical miniatures.  Although Satie wasn't "only" a composer; he was more like a kind of deadpan provocateur at large (for the record, he called himself a "gymnopedist," whatever that is).  Many classical music fans are unaware, for instance, that Satie mixed it up with both the Dadaists and the Surrealists, debated André Breton and Tristan Tzara, and helped Man Ray build his first readymade; he even composed a film score for René Clair.  He knew everyone and did everything, yet he almost seemed to wander through his career, a distant sort of melancholic isolate.

Socrate reflects this characteristic Satiean mood; it treats the philosopher's execution - one of the great tragedies of Western history - with a pellucid calm, and foregrounds the account of his death (from the Phaedo) with odd, alienated quotations from the Symposium and the Phaedrus.  In the first of these, Alcibiades (himself a figure of tragic complexity) compares Socrates to the satyr Marsyas, who was flayed alive by Apollo for the sin of pride in his musical ability (an eerie parallel to Socrates' own death, btw).  In the second episode, Socrates and Phaedrus visit the site of a notorious rape and murder (of Orithyia by Boreas, the north wind); but they only muse on how the scene of the crime is now graced with "shades and gentle breezes;" indeed, at the exact spot where the doomed girl was killed, they remark that "the little stream is delightfully clear and bright."

Clearly Satie was after something like the opposite of catharsis in Socrate; rather than the purgation of emotion, he seems to desire a kind of passage past it, to a realm utterly beyond it; he is considering Socrates' death in precisely the same way the philosopher himself mused on the death of Orithyia (actually, perhaps at an even greater emotional and intellectual distance).

David's The Death of Socrates
But from the first moments of Socrates, we sense Morris violating the composer's intents by instead whipping up a middlebrow weepie - albeit one of a suppressed, exquisitely rarefied type.  Satie insisted that the emotional color of his work was "white," perhaps even "white on white" - but Morris draws his palette almost directly from David's sentimentally noble Death of Socrates (above); indeed, the dancers flutter by in tunics and skirts (by Martin Pakledinaz) that could have been lifted directly from the painting.  Thus Satie's remote, ironic tranquility is immediately replaced by a delicate, busy prettiness.

Not that this is entirely alien to Satie; after all, Socrate itself is lovely, if repetitive; it's essentially a series of similar cadences, voiced with only the subtlest of differences, and the slightest variations in rhythm.  What's more, in the reduction of the score performed at Celebrity Series, the four voices of the original have been reduced to one, making the work "whiter" and more mono-tonic than ever.  But then it's clearly meant as a "clear and bright" musical stream, much like the literal stream running across poor Orithyia's deathbed.

And appropriately enough, Morris has lined up his dancers into flattened planes of movement (sometimes just a skipping kind of walk) that recall both ancient friezes and - particularly in the flutter of their skirts - the rippling surface of a brook.  So at first you think that perhaps Morris is simply going for a "clear and bright" choreographic stream to match Satie's.

But soon you can feel him groping for some sort of musical frame on which to drape his steps, and it just isn't there.  And that's bad news for Mark Morris.  For musical structure has always been the backbone of his greatest dances, from L'Allegro to V; the complexity of his accompaniment has been what granted him depth and resonance, as his steps and gestures went through the subtle repetitions and variations of the music.  Indeed, I've often said that if you want to truly understand how a particular piece is put together, how it builds, you have to watch a Morris dance set to it.

The flip side of this, however, has always been that without a helping hand from his composer, Morris can get simplistic and obvious; sometimes he has even resorted to sign language to get his point across. Indeed, perhaps because of his unconscious grounding in folk dance, he seems unable to build abstract dance structures, as Balanchine did; and he has never managed the kind of conceptual contradictions that are the M.O. of people like Jiří Kylián.  To be blunt, Morris has always been a kind of choreographic slave - if not to the literal rhythm, like Grace Jones, then to the structural rhythms of his music.

But Satie was careful to eliminate almost all traces of structure from Socrate; it simply has no architecture.  So Morris works hard against the tiny cross-currents in its beats, and occasionally almost conjures some choreographic interest from them. Almost.  But elsewhere he's reduced to pantomime to get through his "story" (making this perhaps his first "story ballet"); or he attempts to float big, squashed, symbolic patterns (for "dialectic!" and "self-knowledge!") that roll past us like posters.  Worst of all, as is his wont, Morris makes everything a group effort; the stage is crowded, and there seem to be multiple Socrateses and Phaedri; indeed, when the great philosopher swallows his hemlock, everybody dies, dropping gracefully to the floor like so many artfully choreographed Attic flies.

And it's poignant, all right - it's just completely wrong.  And misses entirely the true point of Socrate - which is a coolly gnomic vision of the ironic outcome of tragedy.  Not that many of the work's reviewers have picked up on that; indeed, most made remarks along the lines of "It's impossible to watch this without crying!" (An impressively block-headed response.)  Sigh.  I admit I'm almost more irritated with Morris's reviewers here than I am with Morris himself; I've often seen actors drawn inexorably to roles that would prove their undoing, so in a way I think of Socrate as an accident just waiting to happen.  It's the cluelessness of these critics that bugs me.  To them, the simple prettiness of Morris's effects, and the way they're attached to earnest intellectual intents, counts as "success" enough.

And it didn't help that for once even the musical - or at least the vocal - performances were weak at Celebrity Series.   Socrate was written mostly for mezzos, but is sometimes sung by tenors, as it was here - only singer Michael Kelly didn't have the full range of the piece at his command, and had to scrape through the upper notes in falsetto.  There were weak vocals earlier in the program, too; the ensemble for The Muir simply didn't have the power for a space the size of the Cutler Majestic.  Fortunately the instrumentalists were quite a bit better, particularly pianist Colin Fowler.  But Socrate seemed a little beyond everybody else's grasp, both onstage and off.

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