Tuesday, July 4, 2023

The Look of Love's Warm Embrace

The Look of Love
. Photo: Christopher Duggan

There are many reasons to embrace The Look of Love by Mark Morris, a suite to songs by Burt Bacharach with lyrics by Hal David, which I saw at Jacob’s Pillow on June 29. Premiering in the wake of the pandemic in 2022, it’s anchored by human interaction on a mostly generous and affectionate level, in sync with Bacharach’s molten, gauzy harmonics. It employs just 10 of the Mark Morris Dance Group; the set is simply five colored chairs with cushions which the dancers move about. Isaac Mizrahi designed the production and the pop-hued tunics and separates. 

Ethan Iverson imaginatively arranged 14 of Bacharach’s songs, nearly all of which were huge hits. (He wrote one song, “The Blob,” to lyrics by Mack David, Hal’s brother; it seemed to be inserted as a kind of hilarious anchor to keep the bubbly work grounded.) The piece begins with a piano rendition of “Alfie,” intimate and searching, in keeping with the existential lyrics. To “What the World Needs Now,” the dancers pair off, a couple to a chair, the set now arrayed like a flower. Morris leans on shapes with right-angle geometry and simple steps like triplets, with arms flung wide. There’s a crispness to the whole work, from the rhythmic clarity underscored by the choreography, to the brilliant hot colors. 

The Look of Love. Photo: Christopher Duggan

Of course Morris injects humor now and then in nods to the lyrics. In “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” the dancers mime catching pneumonia, or shoving their partner. Iverson inserted a musical interlude, which briefly releases the movement from the narrative. In “Raindrops,” the dancers playfully hop, test for, and flick the rain, and in “Don’t Make Me Over,” the performers did a weird version of the Floss. “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” featured some of the most athletic and large-scale movement, with barrel leaps and right-angled arms pointing the way. Dallas McMurray and Billy Smith captured the eye with their clean, unmannered technique that nonetheless felt suffused with meaning. From time to time a dancer lifted another, but a repeating, clever kinetic exclamation took the form of cartwheeling onto another seated dancer’s knees, or the like. Less hoisting of meat and bones is good for all!

“Walk on By” included quick paces and pivots, and faces dropped into spread palms to convey melancholy and introspection. Grapevines in single and double time done by pairs holding hands, one facing upstage at times, couched “Always Something There to Remind Me,” while slow hand pushes, as if through mud, in lunges marked the drowsy pace of “Look of Love” (while McMurray lip synced upstage) and tiny arm flaps were the recurring motif in “Say a Little Prayer.” Morris often creates oddball moves that become signatures for dances or sections, but here, they’re less affected and are rather simple gestures, and are thus highly relatable. 

Singer Marcy Harriel has past singers' (mainly Dionne Warwick) big shoes to fill and handles the task wonderfully, accompanied by a small band led by MMDG Music Director Colin Fowler. The close proximity of the dancers to the audience in the Pillow’s Ted Shawn Theatre provided a greater intimacy and connection than the company often has in opera houses; it will soon perform repertory at the Joyce Theater (impossibly, for the first time) which will be even cozier. The songs’ nostalgia, crackerjack performers, and vivid production made me want to see it again. Here's wishin' and hopin'.

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