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Mark Morris Dance Group perform “The Look of Love.” Photograph by Christopher Duggan

The Look of Love

Mark Morris' evening of dance to Burt Bacharach

Performance
Mark Morris Dance Group: The Look of Love
Place
BroadStage, Santa Monica, California, October 20-23, 2022
Words
Victoria Looseleaf

A breath of fresh, brilliant, joyous—and much needed—air blew into BroadStage on Thursday for the world premiere of Mark Morris’ “The Look of Love.” Co-commissioned by a national consortium of arts presenters, including BroadStage, the work is set to music from the vast cannon of multi-Grammy-award winning pop composer and songwriter, 94-year old Burt Bacharach, with lyrics by his frequent collaborator, Hal David, who died in 2012.

Morris’ 10th evening-length—and, in this case—hour-long piece, made use of 14 songs and was performed by 10 members of the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG). The Brooklyn-based troupe, founded in 1980, has a repertory, courtesy of its artistic director, that is north of some 150 works. And since 1996, when Morris formed MMDG Music Ensemble, live music has been key to every performance, with the Bacharach evening no exception.

Indeed, pianist Ethan Iverson’s arrangements were jazz-inflected romps that seemed to float through the space, with Marcy Harriell’s stellar singing, whether in belting mode or pianissimo crooning (all musicians were in the pit), giving added emotion to David’s engaging lyrics.

Mark Morris Dance Group perform “The Look of Love.” Photograph by Skye Schmidt

As for the dance, well, it proved a journey through time, with Isaac Mizrahi’s sherbet-colored, flowy garb helping the performers evoke the past—hello, 1960s and ‘70s—the present, with several men sporting tunic-like dresses (seriously, this has been a Morris hallmark for years)—and the future, where, one hopes, love will conquer all, aside from inevitable personal heartbreak.

And so we were treated to the opening strains of an instrumental, “Alfie,” which bled into “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” with two men (Brandon Randolph and Domingo Estrada, Jr.) prancing onto the stage, the sounds of Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet playing coursing through the theater. No, “we don’t need another meadow,” as the song goes, but in Morris’ rendering, we do need—chairs.

Yes, the chair motif (color coordinated here), generally overdone since Liza Minnelli used the prop to great effect in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film, Cabaret, was woven throughout the evening, giving the dancers a tad more to do than merely dance. But there is never merely dancing in a Morris work. Abundant solos and swooping, airplane arms reigned here, as five couples deployed unison moves, occasionally presenting themselves cotillion-style.

In the cheeky, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” Morris offered several literalizations: “What do you get when you kiss a guy? You get enough germs to catch pneumonia,” with Billy Smith faux sneezing/coughing into his hand, the spectre of Covid not yet in the rearview mirror (audience members were, thankfully, masked). Still, the moves were as defiant as the song’s title, and the ebullient and luscious partnering that was peppered with muscular lifts, was a kind of seduction in and of itself.

Like his “Pepperland,” Morris’ 2017 work making use of the Beatles’ iconic album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Love” signals a kinder, gentler Mark Morris. And we’re here for that, even as “Don’t Make Me Over,” also included among the Bacharach chart-toppers and performed here, has decidedly been this artist’s credo since bursting onto the scene more than four decades ago.

Mark Morris Dance Group perform “The Look of Love.” Photograph by Skye Schmidt

The intimacy of “Love,” a chamber dance, if you will, also contributed to its success, the kaleidoscopic hues—even in Nicole Pearce’s perfectly executed lighting design—testament to detail, another Morris trademark.

And like a metronome keeping time, the mood swung towards a more contemplative moment in “Message to Michael,” with dancer Dallas McMurray lip-syncing to Harriell’s cooing, “Kentucky bluebird, fly away . . ..”  Articulated footwork, deep pliés and robust leaps punctuated the choreography throughout the evening, as each song seemed to bring new and satisfying surprises much like one encounters when diving into a box of delectable bonbons.

With “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” (the theme song from, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), the dancers mimed protecting themselves from said precipitation (alas, if only it would rain in L.A.), hoisting pastel colored pillows overhead, as the musical accompaniment crossed into Scott Joplin, rag-like territory: Bassist Simón Willson and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza added spice to Iverson’s piano playing, with background vocalists Clinton Curtis and Blaire Reinhard broadening the musical spectrum.

Amid the panoply of heartfelt vocalizing and straightforward dancing, a change of pace came with the opening strains from the 1958 B-horror film, The Blob. A quirky divertissement, the dancers, including Karlie Budge, Christina Sahaida, Nicole Sabella and Courtney Lopes, were seen in spooky silhouettes, while “Walk on By” featured—what else—determined walking. And with no real plot, save for, according to Morris, the songs being, “upbeat but sad, and are always about somebody leaving somebody,” a silent scream emerged in the highly syncopated number, “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me.”

Morris’ choreography can be deceptively simple, occasionally resembling a splendid ballroom dance, yet the work was anything but simplistic: “Love” is a clarion call of motion, where each arched back, pirouette and self-caress signals a bodily truth that continually came alive, especially in “I Say a Little Prayer.”

With outstretched arms, one-legged hops, and modified, albeit quick bourrée-like steps, the dancers, among them, Taìna Lyons, Noah Vinson and Mica Bernas, seemed to be pointing the way to a fevered redemption.

And when Harriell sang, “The Look of Love,” in hushed, plaintive tones, the group moved as one, a kinetic organism burrowing its way into our souls, their Venn diagram of love complete. With the reprise of the instrumental “Alfie,” whose lyrics open with, “What’s it all about . . .” the answer comes easily in the case of Mark Morris Dance Group: It’s about purity, trust and unfettered imagination.

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