People often ask me, “How do you go about choreographing a ballet? Do you start with the music, or do you have an idea first and then look for music?” I have found over the years that the inspiration for a ballet comes from many places and is different every time one goes about making a new work. In the case of Symposium, I happened upon a recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, which I immediately fell in love with. The music runs the gamut from haunting lyric melodies to fierce rhythmic outbursts and seemed to me to be a quite perfect dance score. I then discovered he had been reading Plato’s Symposium on his honeymoon in Mexico in 1951 and was inspired to compose Serenade three years later. He chose that particular title for the work, as his biographer Humphrey Burton explains, “Harking back to the earlier usage when serenades were love songs delivered beneath the balconies of fair ladies.”
Bernstein himself is quoted as saying, “There is no literal program for this Serenade, despite the fact that it resulted from a re-reading of Plato’s charming dialogue, The Symposium. The music, like the dialogue, is a series of related statements in praise of love, and generally follows the Platonic form through the succession of speakers at the banquet. The ‘relatedness’ of the movements does not depend on common thematic material, but rather on a system whereby each movement evolves out of elements in the preceding one.” He then goes on to say “for the benefit of those interested in literary allusion, I might suggest the following points as guideposts:
I – Phaedrus; Pausanias (Lento; Allegro). Phaedrus opens the symposium with a lyrical oration in praise of Eros, the god of love. (Fugato, begun by the solo violin) Pausanias continues by describing the duality of lover and beloved. This is expressed in a classical sonata-allegro, based on the material of the opening fugato.
II – Aristophanes (Allegretto). Aristophanes does not play the role of clown in this dialogue, but instead that of the bedtime story-teller, invoking the fairytale mythology of love.
III – Erixymathus (Presto). The physician speaks of bodily harmony as a scientific model for the workings of love patterns. This is an extremely short fugato scherzo, born of a blend of mystery and humor.
IV – Agathon (Adagio). Perhaps the most moving speech of dialogue, Agathon’s panegyric embraces all aspects of love’s powers, charms and functions. This movement is a simple three-part song.
V – Socrates; Alcibiades (Molto tenuto; Allegro molto vivace). Socrates describes his visit to the seer Diotima, quoting her speech on the demonology of love. This is a slow introduction of greater weight than any of the other preceding movements; and serves as a highly developed reprise of the middle section of the Agathon movement, thus suggesting a hidden sonata-form. The famous interpretation of Alcibiades and his band of drunken revellers ushers in the Allegro, which is an extended Rondo ranging in spirit from agitation through jig-like dance music to joyful celebration. If there is a hint of jazz in the celebration, I hope it will not be taken as anachronistic Greek-party music, but rather the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner-party.”
These guide posts added immensely to my appreciation of the music. Although this is certainly not program music and pure musical or dance ideas certainly cannot be philosophical, nevertheless knowing what the composer was thinking about while he was writing music stimulated my imagination and the imagery and movement vocabulary that I would choose to use while choreographing this ballet.
And so, in my ballet Symposium, various images and ideas came into my head from reading Plato’s work as well as directly from the music. Throughout the ballet there are several references to great folk dancing and the idea of Dionysos tying the ballet together came from The Masks of Dionysos. In the Agathon pas de deux some of the images come directly from Plato’s text – “Let us adduce a similar proof of the tenderness of love; for he walks not upon the earth, nor yet upon the skulls of men, which are not so very soft, but in the hearts and souls of both gods and men, which are of all things the softest: in them he walks and dwells and makes his home. Not in every soul without exception, for where there is hardness he departs, where there is softness there he dwells; and nestling always with his feet and in all manner of ways in the softest of soft places.”
In Eryximachus’ speech Plato talks about harmony and rhythm and “a reconciliation of opposites.” Harmony and rhythm are made up of notes in disagreement but when they are put together they agree: and “thus music, too, is concerned with the principles of love in their application to harmony and rhythm.” This section deals with the rhythm that the music sets up and the dancers’ relation to it, as well as the harmony that is created from the disharmony of the two dancers in opposition to each other.
And finally in the Aristophanes speech, Plato tells a little fable in which he says that originally the sexes were “not two as they are now but originally three in number; there was man, woman and the union of the two;” however they were embodied in one being. “Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods.” Zeus discovered a way to “humble their pride and improve their manners,” deciding to cut them in half so they would be “diminished in strength and increased in numbers.” However, says Plato, “each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man and he is always looking for his other half.”
The visual element of the ballet draws its inspiration from the Russian suprematist Kazimir Malevich. My first thought was to have a Greek design, but the music, although in a neo-classical vein, just didn’t seem to me to warrant that obvious a treatment. I had been taken to a large retrospective of Malevich’s work by my close friend John Malmsted, a professor of Russian art and literature at Harvard, and saw in the Malevich work a correlation in the simplicity and directness of form and architecture to the Greek.
If one didn’t know the background of this ballet one should be able to enjoy the pure relation of dance to music and hopefully the poetry of the images as they unfold. If one can’t enjoy a ballet without reading the program notes then the choreography has failed. In this case, I thought it was interesting for the audience to know how the piece came about and its underlying influences. —Robert Weiss