The Mark Morris Dance Group’s “Look of Love” Takes Our Breath Away

Mark Morris Dance Group, photo by Christopher Duggan

In a genius bit of theatre, Mark Morris opens “The Look of Love,” his delightful new program of dance set to the music of Burt Bacharach, with solo piano, down in the pit. It is composer/arranger (and frequent Morris collaborator) Ethan Iverson, giving a restrained, harmonically dense account of “Alfie.” The piano is joined, softly, by a haunting trumpet (Nadje Noordhuis), thrumming bass (Simón Willson) and shimmering snare (Josh Dion), in what feels like an intimate set at a cozy club several blocks to the east. 

Mark Morris Dance Group, photo by Christopher Duggan

This interval warms the room, and focuses our attention on the lean jazz combo that will power the program. Then the curtain lifts, Marcy Harriell begins to sing, and we have altitude. Of Morris and Iverson’s astute musical choices, foremost is Harriell as lead vocalist. Her command of the audience is instantaneous, thanks to her virtuosic artistry, stunning stage presence, and the multi-hued instrument that is her voice — husky and vivid, rich, ethereal and every shade of sfumato. 

For Morris, music (always live) famously comes first. (In the after-show Q&A, he described himself as “a musician, but with dance.”) With many of his best-known works set to Handel, Purcell and Bach, Morris is often associated with the Baroque, finding energy in the juxtaposition of his dancers’ leaps and spins against the structure of Baroque music, its rigor, mathematics, stateliness and splendor. Even the songs of the Beatles were transmuted, in the recent “Pepperland” (performed February 2020 at the Kauffman), into harpsichord counterpoint fantasias. 

But Morris’s tastes are also broad and eclectic, from the traditional Balkan training of his childhood to his long collaboration with Lou Harrison and his gamelan-inflected circular rhythms and harmonies. Which brings us, perhaps, to Burt Bacharach. In interviews for “The Look of Love,” Morris has propounded his theory that Bacharach remains unjustly underestimated as a composer, due to his popular success and ubiquity, and rightly should be ranked alongside American greats like Gershwin and Copeland. Your feelings may vary. 

The theory is most persuasive when Iverson takes a strong hand to well-worn tunes like “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” which he deconstructs down to the studs, inverting and shifting its Fisher-Price wind-up rhythm and melody into a percussive, bluesy sonic map of the song’s negative spaces. The gorgeous, continual complication pays off when the chorus finally does break out undisrupted, darkening the bravado of the company’s uplifted hallelujah arms on the lyrics “Because I’m free, nothing’s worrying me.” 

Mark Morris Dance Group, photo by Christopher Duggan

“Do You Know the Way to San Jose” makes an ideal showcase for Herrill’s nimble conversational delivery and Morris’s masterful interplay of individuals and groups. No one can stage a jaunty stroll or spirited sprint like Morris (it is reason alone to see him, by my lights), and there is plenty of both in “San Jose,” squadrons of cheery pedestrians passing and parading. Their communal geniality frames the first-person lyrics in stark relief, the aloneness of a striver weary of striving and longing for home. 

As might be expected, “Walk on By” brings plenty more walking — in fact, a perpetual-motion blur of dancers who stride, turn, march and sashay around and around a single empty chair. As with much of this show, it’s tremendously fun to watch, and very easy to miss its central sadness, neatly echoing the gap between Bacharach’s bubblegum tunes and Hal David’s melancholy lyrics. 

Morris has always been interested in communal movement, dancers moving as one body, in unison, or in parts, as a chorus, interacting as lines and circles, processions and phalanxes, groupings that can feel atavistic, ritualistic, folkloric and sociable. (The tenderly beautiful “What the World Needs Now” evokes archetypal village wedding festivities.) In his company there are no soloists or prima ballerinas, only dancers of diverse physical types performing equal-opportunity, non-gendered roles in any-gender costumes. The stage is also egalitarian, activated in its entirety, freed from the flattening of the proscenium plane. Since any dancer, at any time and any place, front or back, side or center, may burst into a new sequence, or advance a motif, the viewer’s eye must rove and leap and follow, stay open to all possibilities. It is dance as democracy, Sunday in the park with Mark, an expression of Morris’s fundamental humanism, his belief in plurality, commonality and esprit de corps. 

And, of course, always, in beauty and fun. Morris’s pattern-making is as inventive as ever, overflowing with wit, flights of grace, light-hearted tumbles and charming tableaux. There is even a romantic pas de deux (unusual for Morris) between Noah Vinson and Courtney Lopes in “The Look of Love,” although, characteristically, their relationship is conducted around and within the assembly of dancers who signal their emotions. In “I Say a Little Prayer” the group arm pumps on “Forever, forever” are such a blast one starts to look for them each time the chorus spins around. In fact, one can’t wait, perhaps, to try those little arm pumps for oneself, in private. Morris’s celebration of collective buoyancy and communal joy, his insistence on it, is that inviting. And isn’t that what the world needs now? 

This small company is full of individual strengths: Brandon Randolph’s carriage, Courtney Lopes’s intensity, Nicole Sabella‘s amiability, an explosive leap by Domingo Estrada, Jr., that recalled a young Mark Morris in its brawn and expressiveness. But it was Dallas McMurray’s night. The man in the pink A-line shift seemed not to dance so much as channel the music, every inch of his body fulfilling each beat. Frequent Morris collaborator Isaac Mizrahi once again brings his perfect eye for color to the costume and production design. Arranger Iverson and singers Clinton Curtis and Blaire Reinhard deserve mention for the enrichment of their overlapping harmonies, off-beat syncopations, and even, on the comic palate cleanser “The Blob,” theremin-like horror-movie screeches.

Finally, speaking of what the world needs, the modern dance scene in Kansas City would be infinitely poorer without the generosity of the Harriman-Jewell Series, and its decades of bringing us Alvin Ailey, David Parsons, MOMIX, and (for their sixth visit since 1993) the brilliant and joyful Mark Morris Dance Group

The Mark Morris Dance Group, presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series, co-commisioner of “The Look of Love,” An Evening of Dance Set to the Music of Burt Bacharach, November 17, 2023, at Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts

Grace Suh

Grace Suh's work has received awards from the Edward F. Albee Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts USC Arts Journalism Fellowship, Hedgebrook Writers in Residence Program, Djerassi Resident Artist Program and Charlotte Street Foundation.

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