Dance Review: THE LOOK OF LOVE (Mark Morris Dance Group)

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by Michael M. Landman-Karny on November 6, 2023

in Dance,Theater-Regional,Tours


As part of a national tour, the Mark Morris Dance Group graced the gorgeous Musco Center for the Arts at Chapman University in Orange last Saturday with its latest opus, a 65-minute dance spectacle The Look of Love. This artistic endeavor served as an homage to the illustrious Burt Bacharach, who sadly passed this year. It emerged from a creative alliance between Bacharach himself, the choreographer Mark Morris, and the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi.

The performance that unfolded was nothing short of captivating, an evening wherein the realms of modern dance and the vivacity of a live jazz ensemble, an enchanting vocalist, and a kaleidoscope of resplendent costumes seamlessly converged. At its core, it was a reverent celebration of some of the most iconic popular songs ever conceived.

Morris, a choreographer renowned for his unparalleled ability to intricately interlace the language of dance with musical scores, exhibited his exceptional virtuosity yet again. His precision and wit in capturing the structural subtleties of a musical composition remain unparalleled. Morris’s prowess in the realm of musicality transcends genre boundaries, encompassing everything from overlooked baroque gems to the rich traditions of Carnatic music in India, and even to unconventional compositions by artists such as Yoko Ono and Harry Partch.

The Look of Love‘s 13 songs by Bacharach and lyricist Hal David, meticulously crafted by musical arranger Ethan Iverson — who managed to retain the authentic sound of the 1960s — providing the perfect auditory backdrop for ten consummate dancers. Bacharach’s music, often unfairly pigeonholed as “easy listening,” is characterized by its unique chord progressions, influenced by the complexities of jazz harmony, syncopated rhythms, irregular phrasing, frequent modulations, and ever-shifting meters. Iverson’s Little Big Band, featuring Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Simón Willson on bass, and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums, produced a lush and opulent sound that dovetailed seamlessly with the performance.

What distinguishes Morris from many of his contemporaries is his steadfast commitment to dissecting the musical tapestry. His choreography is far from arbitrary; it stands as a visual interpretation of the nuanced idiosyncrasies contained within the score. This approach necessitates active engagement from the audience, imploring them to employ all their faculties to fully apprehend the dance. For instance, the avian-like fluttering of arms may not convey a straightforward narrative, but it harmoniously aligns with Bacharach’s rapid rhythmic flourishes. Morris’s distinctive hallmark as a choreographer is his capacity to harmonize his dances not merely with the notes but also with the overarching emotional tenor of the chosen music. When he choreographs Purcell, you sense Purcell (Dido and Aeneas); when it’s the Beatles, you sense the Beatles (Pepperland). With The Look of Love, he masterfully encapsulated the quintessence of Burt Bacharach.

The dance style exuded a seemingly effortless fluidity, drawing from the wellspring of social dance and free-form improvisation. Nevertheless, it introduced a level of synchronicity hitherto uncommon in Morris’s repertoire, reminiscent of a dance chorus in a bygone era of Broadway musicals. The ever-shifting rhythms and meters afforded the choreography a level of intricacy, incorporating variously paced grapevine steps and unexpected skips. Morris did not shy away from literal interpretations either; the dancers mimicked the joyous leaps of children into puddles during “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” and offered a meticulously synchronized promenade in “Walk on By.”

The dancers exhibited extraordinary rhythmic precision, balance, speed, and technical finesse, all while preserving their individuality, a hallmark of Morris’s dancers. Isaac Mizrahi’s unadorned stage design comprised of five folding chairs and five circular cushions in luscious hues of orange, lime, grape, and lemon. The backdrop screen, artfully illuminated by the brilliant lighting design of Nicole Pearce, transitioned from a soft, sunrise yellow to a profound, opulent purple, creating a visually resplendent tableau. Mizrahi’s costumes mirrored the confectionary palette of the set, gracing the dancers with vibrant hues.

Broadway singer Marcy Harriell did not merely pay tribute to Dionne Warwick, Bacharach’s muse; she delivered vocals of consummate commitment, oscillating between moments of exultation, hushed intimacy, and desolation. In the poignant ballad “Message to Michael” — the title character’s pronoun ingeniously changed to “they” — Harriell’s vocal range navigated expertly from whispered intimacy to an impassioned, beseeching entreaty, conveying the trials and tribulations of an individual unable to openly live as their true self.

The evening culminated on a whimsical note, as the audience was serenaded by Harriell’s breathy and evocative rendition of “I Say a Little Prayer,” leaving me eagerly anticipating future presentations of Mark Morris’s extraordinary oeuvre.

photos of world premiere on October 20, 2022 at BroadStage in Santa Monica, CA by Sky Schmidt

The Look of Love
Mark Morris Dance Group
reviewed at Musco Center for the Arts on November 4, 2023
tour continues; for dates and cities, visit Mark Morris

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