Christopher Bernard reviews Cal Performances’ showing of Socrates and Via Dolorosa by the Mark Morris Dance Group

Several groups of dancers in white and tan robes cluster in front of a background painted in various colors: blue, white, red, orange, and yellow.
Mark Morris Dance Group in “Via Dolorosa” (Photo: Chris Hardy)

Calvary and a Prison in Athens

Socrates and Via Dolorosa
Mark Morris Dance Group
Cal Performances
Berkeley, California

Western civilization. Two words that seem to enrage one half the world while blinding the other with a misguided sense of aggrieved loyalty. The so-called progressive left lays the blame for all of today’s evils at its doorstep. The alt-right and other so-called conservatives claim to be its sole defenders in a world gone mad with resentment and ingratitude.

“Slavery, capitalism, climate change, nuclear war, toxic synthetics, dying seas, the collapsing of wildlife and the sixth extinction,” the left claims, “including our own under the weight of a catastrophic success – these are the legacy of Western civilization.” “Freedom, unsurpassed prosperity, knowledge without equal, human creativity unleashed and human power without limit,” claims the right, “righteousness, grace and God: these are the gifts and the triumph of Western civilization.”

But today there is no longer such a thing as “Western civilization.” Long after Europe lost its empires and its political and economic dominance, its intellectual and spiritual domination of the world is complete. Now “Western civilization” is world civilization: free markets, the primacy of the individual, the sanctity of human rights and the political authority of the people (in theory when not in practice), the imperative of human creativity, technology, critical reason and the scientific method in addressing our problems – these Western definitions of the good are unchallenged by anyone – though the right seems hardly to understand them and the left pretends to forget them. The right defends a grotesque caricature of “the West” that has its roots in the barbarians that brought down an empire and sacked Rome – their founding fathers are Alaric and Attila, the Vandals and Ostrogoths who gaped at the cities they burned.

The left attacks an equally grotesque simulacrum: a “West” that began in 1619, or 1492, or 1605 – when the Atlantic slave trade began, or Columbus set foot on Hispaniola, or the first stock exchange was founded in Amsterdam and what had been an efficient series of trading markets across the continent turned into the many-headed Hydra that now feasts on the globe.

At the heart of our dominant civilization stand two figures whose shadows have been cast down the millennia; the greatest rebels and martyrs of their times – doubters, skeptics, revolutionists. Each stood for his (for they were both men) convictions regarding reality, truth and the good, and each paid the ultimate price: they were summarily killed by the people and powers of their time, with the assumption their ideas and influence would die with them. They did not. Those two individuals also stood for the two poles on which what was, eventually, called “the West” has revolved for centuries. Their names? Socrates and Jesus.

Socrates embedded the dialectics of doubt and reasoned argument into the heart of the West. Jesus embedded the imperative of faith and love. Both stood for truth – though their conceptions of it were not always congruent, and much of Western history has been a long-undecided conflict, sometimes war, between them, one essentially spiritual, the other material – “Hebraism” and “Hellenism,” as Matthew Arnold defined them two centuries ago.

Or, as we might say today, alt-right and progressive – neither side seeming to realize that both they and their opponents are Western to the core.

What civilization first placed its own self-criticism as one of its fundamental values? Western – and late Western at that. In most other cultures and civilizations, including earlier versions of Europe, the critic, dissident, rebel would have been imprisoned, executed or dismissed as mad.

What civilization places the idea of moral universals and absolutes at its beating heart? Again, Western. Most, if not all, other cultures enforced loyalty to their own and only their own; anyone outside “the tribe” was not considered entirely “human,” and certainly had no “rights.”

This is not to romanticize the West. Being human, it is imperfect – often floridly so. It has blood on its hands, as does every other culture and civilization since humanity broke off from its simian ancestors. And its virtues were not always intentional; they exist at least partly because there has been in fact no single “Western culture” but rather a cauldron of “Western cultures,” dozens of cultures, ethnicities, religions, races, in perpetual war with each other for millennia. But that discussion must be pursued elsewhere.

The Mark Morris Dance Group brought two dances, balancing these Western, and now world-dominating presences, one intellectual and heroic, the other spiritual and sanctified, to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Theater during a recent weekend; performances that could not help but stimulate these thoughts.

The first was a revival of Mark Morris’s celebrated “Socrates,” an intriguing work set to the music of Eric Satie and a libretto taken from three of Plato’s dialogues. Based on designs to be found in Grecian pottery, and at times curiously reminiscent of Nijinsky’s notorious choreography for Debussy’s “Prelude to ‘L’aprés-midi d’un faune,’” the dance moves in smoothly hieratic poses, sometimes childlike, sometimes serenely adolescent, across a landscape of classical purity and grace.

The dance has a libretto, performed gracefully by tenor Brian Giebler and accompanied by pianist Colin Fowler. The libretto’s first part is taken from The Symposium, the celebrated dialogue on the nature of love. Alicibiades describes Socrates as like a Selenus, a grotesque figurine containing, hiddenly, the figure of a god, and also like Marsyas, a satyr and flute player for the gods – though those who remember their mythology will remember his tragic end when he makes the mistake of challenging Apollo, god of the lyre, to a competition: he loses, predictably, and is skinned alive for his hubris.
The second part describes an idyllic passage in Phaedrus in which Socrates and his young eponymous friend seek a place on the banks of a lovely stream where they will conduct a conversation in search of the true, the beautiful, and the good.

The third is taken from Phaedo, narrating the last moments of Socrates’ life, surrounded by his mourning friends in an Athens prison, when he drinks the hemlock to which he has been condemned by the citizens of Athens for corrupting the youth of the city when, in truth, he was liberating them from the very illusions that led, ironically, tragically, to the greatest of ironist’s own martyrdom.
Eric Satie’s music, famously cool and detached, makes little attempt to express the libretto; Morris’s choreography spends almost all of its time following the music and ignoring the words: there is almost no attempt, for example, to express the pathos of the closing pages until the very end, when, one by one, each of the dancers slips gracefully to the floor, expressing the death, perhaps not only of Socrates, but of the Greek ideal itself.

The second half of the program was a world premiere, awaited with much anticipation: “Via Dolorosa,” set to the music of Nico Muhly, performed on solo harp, with formidable virtuosity, by Parker Ramsay. The dance follows the Stations of the Cross, from Jesus’ condemnation to his crucifixion, death and entombment. Interestingly, it distributes the role of Jesus to dancers of various genders, ethnicities and races, appropriate for the universal humanity of the Good Shepherd. Muhly’s music is, for the most part, as detached as Satie’s, though it occasionally gives way to the harrowing drama of the moment. The stunning stage set – a blowup of a searingly beautiful patch of abstract brushwork, whose colors changed depending on how they were lit – was by Howard Hodgkin.

For this dance, too, there’s a libretto, in this case somewhat overwrought, by Alice Goodman, though in this performance it was neither spoken nor sung (as, it seems, might occur at some performances). Which was just as well, as it is, to be frank, a poor substitute for the simple descriptions in the gospel.

The dance was a little disappointing. Though there were moments of genuine originality and the childlike grace and warm humanity one associates with Morris’s dances, there just was not enough inventiveness and too much reliance on mannerisms one has also come to expect. It seemed just a little tired. There was also a strange attempt to take the edge off the final moments of the entombment, at the very end of the dance, to anticipate the coming resurrection, that felt contrived and forced. After all, even in Giotto’s frescoes, the angels are allowed to weep and lament as if there will be no resurrection to come, not take what looked like a not very unconvincing victory lap.

It was perhaps a more thought-provoking evening than one that was entirely satisfying aesthetically, but it was certainly worth the visit. And the audience gave it a standing ovation.
_____
Christopher Bernard is an award-winning poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. His most recent books are the children’s books If You Ride A Crooked Trolley . . . and The Judgment of Biestia, the first two stories in the series “Otherwise.”




Poetry from Christopher Bernard

Eyeless in Gaza

Strong, blind, he stumbles over the broken land.
His teeth are black. Boots crush a few innocents.
What does he care? His old wounds crowd his mind.
“Make everyone pay! Who pitied me? No pity!
Kill the children! Kill the mothers! Kill the men,
above all, who blinded me! Wipe them out!”
His fists hurl through the darkness.
				          The YouTube videos
show children
left behind his boot,
sand packed in their eyes, crusting their lips like dirty glitter,
the black-scarved mothers hysterical with grief,
the sunlight like a scar.

No pity, no pity – an eye for an eye,
and the whole world has gone blind. Evil
stalks men. It eats them. Then it spits them out.

Pity
         everyone,
 		   all of us –

or who shall pity us?


Aaron Bushnell, Martyr

At attention, in battle fatigues,
he stands before the concrete
cube within which
the ambassador sends his dispatches
between capitals. “The president
may say what he wants. The alliance
holds. Only the funds matter.
Gaza never existed anyway.”

He is staring at you.
His clothes are slick
as though he were standing in the rain.
There is a movement of his hand.

The ambassador
looks up, startled,
by a strange smell
as the man outside
becomes, for a moment,
fire.

_____

Christopher Bernard is an American poet, novelist and essayist. (“Eyeless in Gaza” first appeared in his collection Chien Lunatique, but he feels it is even more relevant today than when it first appeared.)

Poem from Christopher Bernard

Fountain

Her hand leaps into the air like spray
as she dances, dances through the shadows
in the hushed auditorium she wraps around her
all the long spring afternoon.
She seems to rise in a lover's arms
of air and fog and sunlight.
Her eyes glimmer, her lips
murmur sweet nothings.
The hair flows over the brim of her shoulders
down her transparent back. Swallows
dance in the rain that dazzles from her fingers:
she is a living fountain, and drowns all the boys.

____

Christopher Bernard is an award-winning poet, novelist and essayist. His most recent books are the first two stories in the series “Otherwise,” for middle-grade readers: If You Ride A Crooked Trolley . . .  and The Judgment Of Biestia.

Christopher Bernard reviews San Francisco Ballet’s new premiere: Mere Mortals

Light skinned nude-looking dancer with curly dark hair stands with head bowed and covered with light swirls of gauzy cloth.

“Mere Mortals”: Davide Occhipinti, of San Francisco Ballet. From Hamill Industries; source photo: Lindsey Rallo

The Ballet of Terror

Mere Mortals

San Francisco Ballet

War Memorial Opera House

Reviewed by Christopher Bernard

Early on the gloomy day of the performance I attended, I noted it would be an unusually short evening – a mere hour and fifteen minutes, without even an intermission. And I grumbled to myself about short shrift and lean pickings.

But the city has been pasted for weeks with black-and-white photos, scored with the vaguely ominous title and its allusion to ancient gods and goddesses, of a bare-breasted dancer ensnarled in a swirl of white sheet, like a larva breaking from a chrysalis or an angel caught in a damage of wings, flogging the new work – and so my curiosity was keen.

And, as it turned out, with more justification than I could possibly have known.

“Mere Mortals,” the first dance commissioned under San Francisco Ballet’s new artistic director Tamara Rojo (the War Memorial Opera House was illuminated in red in her honor), was introduced to the world on that chilly January evening just before a weeklong train of atmospheric rivers threatened to pummel the Bay Area with reminders of nature’s (or the gods’) ultimate sovereignty.

As it happened, we didn’t have to wait for her salutary raging: the first tempest was brewed, quite satisfactorily, thank you very much, by her most gifted, and most rebellious, child inside the compact, baroque precincts of the War Memorial Opera House.

If you didn’t read the program, you might never have guessed that this dance, which seemed entirely abstract yet was radiant with an urgent and perfectly clear meaning, was in fact about the early Titans of Greek mythology, or Pandora and her cursed jar. Or that the dance drew parallels between the fraught liberation of human power found in those ancient stories, and today’s invention, by “mere mortals,” of something that may render obsolescent even our own highest gifts – namely, artificial intelligence.

But no matter: it was clear within minutes that we were witnessing an allegory about the entwining of liberation and evil at the heart of the human experiment, and the two-sided blade that is hope itself. And it was also perfectly clear that we were in the firm and steady hands of masters of dance, music, and stagecraft; at least one spectator was left in a trance of admiration at what these “mere mortals” were able to magick in a mere hour and a quarter.

The dance unfolds in half a dozen acts, at a rough count, each broken into short scenes, most of them led by Pandora (danced with a darkly inflected, impeccable grace by Jennifer Stahl), the infinitely curious woman who unleashed woe upon the world while also freeing a Hope that encompasses a touch of that creativity of the gods that menaces as much as it promises.

Pandora danced, solo, in a long opening scene until, at its apparently tranquil conclusion, she opened her infamous jar, out of which irrupted a plague of dancers, the Evils she has freed, swarming like an ink of insects onto a stage whose primary colors throughout the evening were the starkest of whites and blacks.

From then on, the dance is an intricate play of the dialectic of ferocious good and implacable evil whose paradoxical result is an endless invention: the evils themselves are provokers of beauty, and Hope itself is serpent-like, ophidian, menacing – freeing.

The Titans –  a dark Prometheus (Isaac Hernández), bringer of fire and liberator of the most gifted of species (the program will inform you this character combines the rebellious Titan with his arch nemesis, Zeus, king of the gods and ruler of the world), and, later, his boyishly joyful brother Epimetheus (Parker Garrison) – compete to dominate the story, but fail to in the end: at the brilliant heart of the piece, Pandora and Epimetheus perform a remarkable pas de deux that actually embodies the romantic drama many fail to capture: most pas de deux are signs of romance but rarely persuade that the couple onstage actually is in love: this one did, profoundly, alchemically.

In the final act, Pandora is resorbed into the cosmos after a lengthy “2001”-inspired odyssey into a chaos of futurity, and the evils (or are they angels now?), dancing like ghosts glittering in silver, ring like an ouroboros and seethe like a horde of bullies and mean girls around the golden boy Hope (Wei Wang), who seems, briefly, triumphant over the chaos.

But even he, with his suspect minions, is finally sucked back into a darkness that remains, beyond either divinity or humanity, absolutely sovereign yet infinitely creative.

The choreographer of this dazzling evening was the Canadian Aszure Barton, who seems to have taken up the ink-black mantle of William Forsythe. In fact, this was one of the most powerful new dances I have been privileged to see since Forsythe’s “New Sleep,” premiered by the Ballet in the 1980s.

The brilliantly original score, by turns driving and lyrical – part electronic, part orchestral, with solos by violinist Cordula Merks,  timpanist Zubin Hathi, and harpist Annabell Taubl – is by Floating Points (known, more pedestrianly, as Sam Shepherd). Conductor Martin West led with thrust and panache. Equal on the bill is a breathtaking production design and visuals by Hamill Industries: Pablo Barquin and Anna Diaz, who helped shape the evening into a complex and satisfying whole. If I have any complaint, it is that the soloists were not identified in the printed program notes or the usual printed fill-in (the tyranny of the cell phone continues apace: a scrambled QR code will sesame you to the neglected information).

The gods of the Ballet were even more generous than giving us a mere work of genius: to make up for a “short” evening, they added an hour-long disco party in the lobby after the performance, with DJ, light-bearing dancers, and cash bars, that was attended by a few hundred dazed-looking audience members, some of whom let down their hair and joined in the dancing. In my mind I called it “The Party at the End of the World.”

I still felt in a bit of a trance when I got home, and posted the following on Facebook:

“I sit here at the computer, feeling relatively speechless, battered by an evening at the ballet. . . .

The words come with even greater slowness than usual, as if from a pit black as pitch, with a silence that . . .

. . . mere mortals break at their peril.

Dance needs to be cautious about evoking such gods.

Pandora danced open a treasure of evils.

Leaving, at the bottom, Hope.

Savage. Demonic. A kind of catastrophe.

If a magnificent one.“

I was left, at the end of the night, with a final question: who, after all, is Pandora? 

Friend reader: is it us?

Is it you?

_____

Christopher Bernard is an award-winning poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. His most recent books are the children’s books If You Ride A Crooked Trolley . . . and The Judgment of Biestia, the first two stories in the series “Otherwise.”

Poetry from Christopher Bernard

Cosmos

Then Cosmos spoke: 
“I have no end.
I have no beginning.
Nothing gave birth to me.
Nothing will bring an end to me.
I am everywhere.
I am all that was, that is,
all that will be.
I am Eternal Being
and Perpetual Becoming.
I am peace and I am war.
I am hate and love.

There are two roads to find me:
withdraw to the depths of your mind,
the darkness where nothing outside you enters,
and there we shall meet
and be One.
For you and I are One,
and have been for eternity.”

“But, Lord, you say there is a second road?”

“Yes. Look at a stone,
a flower, a leaf, a cloud,
and let it fill your mind
until your self has disappeared,
and stone and flower and cloud
fill you as though you were not there.
And there you will find Me,
and you shall know peace.”

“And when I am weary of peace,
and hunger for thrill and deed?”

And Cosmos smiled his deepest smile:
“Then you will find Me
in flexing body, ingenious mind,
in conquering will.
I am the god of tenderness,
and I am the god of power.
I am changeless stillness
and endless transformation.
Nothing is lost where I am,
nor is there any death:
there is only sleep
in dream’s eternal city.
All things I am.
Everything am I.”

Then the voice vanished in darkness
and silence of the night,
and I listened and wrote down
these words lest I forget.

_____

Christopher Bernard is a co-editor of Caveat Lector. His collection The Socialist’s Garden of Verses won a PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award and was named one of “The Top Indie Books of 2021” by Kirkus Reviews. His two books for children – If You Ride A Crooked Trolley . . . and The Judgment Of Biestia, from the series “Otherwise” – are now available.

Poetry from Christopher Bernard

Shopping



A sky of pigeon gray. The sun a beautiful stain.
Air without a breath. Crowds in motley,
cheerful, insouciant: no one is worrying
too much. A little girl
falls and cries out, her white shoe
behind her on the sidewalk. But her mother’s there:
no tragedy, just a few small tears.
I can smell oil, leaves, soft pretzels, grass.
The day moves like a parent
trying to carry too many presents.
Several fall, and one or two are definitely lost,
but, surely, there are more, many more, where they came from.


_____

Christopher Bernard’s collection The Socialist’s Garden of Verses won a PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award and was named one of the “Top 100 Indie Books of 2021” by Kirkus Reviews. His two “tales for children and their adults” – If You Ride A Crooked Trolley . . . and The Judgment Of Biestia, the first stories in the “Otherwise” series – will be available in December 2023.


Poem from Christopher Bernard

An Ode to My Appendix

O you useless thing! excrescence waggling
at the dead end of the bag of anatomy
that sits like a judge’s wig on the maze of small
snaking intestine, waiting there like a bandit
to trap the unsuspecting on their long journey to the sewer,
and then inflate out of all proportion to sense or nonsense,
cause earthquakes across the belly’s terra firma,
send waves of fever to cloud the imperious mind,
and bring the mighty down over an undigested tomato seed!

O rag of flesh! O slippery traitor! O itchy little Finger of Fate!
O miserable reminder of our weakness and God’s power!
One cannot get rid of you soon enough! 

What a miserable twenty-four hours! Convulsed at 7 pm,
to the hospital next day for hours of tests,
then off to the ER, in suspense among a fluttering crowd
of nurses, MAs, doctors, surgeons, new patients,
then spirited to pre-op and OR, in suspense awaiting the outcome
of two emergency caesarians (women and children first!),
then, the last thing before going under, a glance
at a big clock showing ten minutes to midnight . . . 

No one still knows any reason
an appendix was ever there in the first place. Some say
it had something to do with the “immune system.” I say,
if that case, it was made to help immunize the world from the likes of us!

No, you are probably just one of God’s little jokes: 
to give idle surgeons something to keep their hands busy 
when they don’t have anything better to do on a Friday at midnight.

_____

Christopher Bernard’s collection The Socialist’s Garden of Verses won a PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award and was named one of the “Top 100 Indie Books of 2021” by Kirkus Reviews. His two “tales for children and their adults” – If You Ride A Crooked Trolley . . . and The Judgment Of Biestia – will be available in December 2023.