I intend to discuss several insights about Greek dance that have been sketched out by Paul Valéry, an influential figure in European modernism. I will concentrate on one of his insufficiently discussed “Platonic” dialogues, L’ Âme et la Danse (Dance and the Soul), a discussion, published in 1921, that stages as interlocutors Eryximachus, Phaedrus and Socrates. The last attempt to take this dialogue seriously and in toto dates to the 1930s, when Louis Séchan offered some remarkably insightful analyses. I will focus on two major issues concerning this dialogue. First, I examine the way in which, apart from its obvious Platonism, the dialogue seems to echo Xenophon’s Symposium and possibly Alcman’s Louvre Partheneion or, at least, important aspects of the aesthetic sensibility that permeates Alcman’s choral piece. Second, I explicate how the dialogue raises the issue of meaning in dance. My claim will be that, even though Valéry’s extraordinary insights about meaning in dance – put into the mouths of his three Greek speakers – primarily reflect his own modernist sensibility, they also happen to be strikingly relevant to an ancient Greek way of understanding and interpreting dance.
In order to show the interesting affinities between modernist and Greek aesthetic reflections on dance I will briefly refer to three models of viewing and perceiving dance in Greek antiquity. The first model does not seek any reference apart from the beauty of the movement itself. It is thus located outside the realm of mimesis and its practitioners (narrators or imagined viewers) take delight in the most literal and accurate description of movement per se. The second model represents what is usually considered the most established and canonical view about Greek dance, its mimetic function. The third model is what I would like to call meta-mimetic or meta-orchestic. Interpretive language is used here not in order to reveal the mimetic subject of the danced act, but in order to challenge the relationship between the signifier and the signified of the mimetic act, and to reflect on its multiple possibilities.
The first and the third model, which are encountered less frequently in extant Greek texts, seem to share a common aesthetic standpoint. I will claim that this is precisely the standpoint that Valéry had intuitively envisioned in his dialogue and had put into the mouth of Socrates. In view, however, of the Platonic portrait of the sage’s aesthetic leanings, this is, to say the least, ironic.