Trisha Brown’s Socratic movements

Although my posts of the last couple of days have moved away from my recent interest in contemporary ‘conceptual’ dance, I have still been reading and thinking about this work. Of course, today with the sad news of the death of Trisha Brown, I was brought back to its origins in this pioneer of movement. Re-reading her brief 1975 text ‘Locus’ (after the dance of the same name) in André Lepecki’s wonderful anthology DANCE (part of the Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art series), Brown’s description of her attitude to movement as a means of provoking her audience reminded me of Socrates and his use of irony in his teaching methods. Consider the following passage:

I may perform an everyday gesture so that the audience does not know whether I have stopped dancing or not and, carrying that irony further, I seek to disrupt their expectations by setting up an action to travel left and then cut right at the last moment unless I imagine they have caught on to me, in which case I might stand still.

According to Diogenes Laertius, Socrates supposedly learned how to dance in old age. Diogenes’ source for this anecdote is Xenophon’s Symposium and it is worth quoting the full passage to appreciate the figure of the dancing philosopher, especially in light of Brown’s own approach to ironic movement:

At this point the boy performed a dance, eliciting from Socrates the remark, “Did you notice that, handsome as the boy is, he appears even handsomer in the poses of the dance than when he is at rest?”

“It looks to me,” said Charmides, “as if you were flattering the dancing-master.”

“Assuredly,” replied Socrates; “and I remarked something else, too,—that no part of his body was idle during the dance, but neck, legs, and hands were all active together. And that is the way a person must dance who intends to increase the suppleness of his body. And for myself,” he continued, addressing the Syracusan, “I should be delighted to learn the figures from you.”

“What use will you make of them?” the other asked.

“I will dance, by Zeus.”

This raised a general laugh; but Socrates, with a perfectly grave expression on his face, said: “You are laughing at me, are you? Is it because I want to exercise to better my health? Or because I want to take more pleasure in my food and my sleep? Or is it because I am eager for such exercises as these, not like the long-distance runners, who develop their legs at the expense of their shoulders, nor like the prize-fighters, who develop their shoulders but become thin-legged, but rather with a view to giving my body a symmetrical development by exercising it in every part? Or are you laughing because I shall not need to hunt up a partner to exercise with, or to strip, old as I am, in a crowd, but shall find a moderate-sized room large enough for me (just as but now this room was large enough for the lad here to get up a sweat in), and because in winter I shall exercise under cover, and when it is very hot, in the shade? Or is this what provokes your laughter, that I have an unduly large paunch and wish to reduce it? Don’t you know that just the other day Charmides here caught me dancing early in the morning?”

“Indeed I did,” said Charmides; “and at first I was dumbfounded and feared that you were going stark mad; but when I heard you say much the same things as you did just now, I myself went home, and although I did not dance, for I had never learned how, I practised shadow-boxing, for I knew how to do that.”

The striking image of Charmides stumbling across Socrates dancing by himself in a room offers a sharp contrast to to the beautiful young man dancing for the guests at the symposium. So too does the idea of the old man Socrates learning the moves from the young man’s dance teacher so that he can dance by himself and for himself. But both images of the dancing philosopher provoke his audience to laugh and be dumbfounded. This is a version of the moment of aporia in a Socratic dialogue when the interlocutor has to examine their own presuppositions when faced by Socrates’ line of questioning or ironic position. Just as Brown’s audience do not know if she has stopped dancing or if she will move left or right, Socrates has moved the arguments in a way that makes his audience stop and think. Yet for all of those dancing students of Socrates, who, like Charmides, took up the art of movement to better appreciate why their master used his body to better examine himself, just think of all the students of Trisha Brown (like Diane Madden in the below photograph) who have taken to dance to learn how to captivate and confound an audience with the simplest of gestures, as they do not know (but desperately want to know for themselves) whether she has indeed stopped dancing or not.

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