Photo: Skye Schmidt

The Look of Love

Mark Morris Dance Group at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley CA

Written by:
David e. Moreno
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“Are we meant to take more than we give?
Or are we meant to be kind? And if only fools are kind, Alfie
Then I guess it is wise to be cruel” Hal David

            I can’t remember the last time a choreographer took a curtain call at the beginning of their own performance. Least of all when that performance is a tribute to a musical genius who passed away just nine days ago and then offered a cheering audience not one word about his relationship with that prodigy, their interactions regarding this project, or that when Burt Bacharach saw “The Look of Love” tribute in the making, that he gave his blessings… But then, this is a Mark Morris; “I’m so glad to be here” is all he offered. “So glad to be back.”

            Ostentation aside, all settled once the pianist, Ethan Iverson, playing from the orchestra pit, played the first indelible chords of Bacharach’s “Alfie.” His piano solo was void of vocals and dancing. It was the perfect introduction to this hour-length performance, setting a promising tone for what was to unfold. In its simplicity, it memorialized the composer the way words could not. And the audience, primarily white-haired baby boomers, didn’t need to hear the lyrics as they are nostalgically imprinted in our brains; they are our memory, our youth, inaudibly overlayed onto Iverson’s delicate playing… If nothing else happened this evening, this would have been enough, the pairing down of a simple melody that perpetuated Bacharach’s rise in stardom as a composer and gave the equally talented lyricist Hal David a place for his heart-felt poetry–making their collaborative creations immortal.

            What follows is predictable–as the company makes their way through hit after hit, clad in Isaac Mizrahi’s bubblegum-colored costumes, unique to each dancer, flattering to most while neutering a couple of male dancers in tight tunics and tunic-styled dresses–with the unimaginative choreography limiting itself to about six different moves that repeat throughout and relies on mimicking lyrics, slapstick gestures, and keeping to the superficial while using metal fold-up chairs that come and go and get rearranged as if significant to the staging. The company is neutralized, held back from its talents, with no one standing out and few memorable segments. Solos almost happen, and duets nearly take place but are immediately washed away with the rest of the company interrupting. When Walk on By is performed… they walk…in formations like a marching Band keeping everything literal, pedestrian, and crowd-pleasing.

            And when they finally arrive at the song, The Look of Love–one of the most sultry and romantic songs ever written–hauntingly sung with the smokey, one-of-a-kind voice of Dusty Springfield, made bleaker with a jazzy cover by Diana Krall and turn into a joyous Brazilian anthem by Sergio Mendez and Brazil 66, Morris brings back the sterile, overused foldup chairs with dancer primarily sitting with outstretched arms, palms flexed, as if trying to stop love, push it away. The song is as sensual as music gets, strung together by a cha-cha-cha samba beat that is impossible to let go of—like you want it to go on forever. But there was nothing remotely sensual or seductive about this dance; in its place, it felt chaste and mechanical, as if it was designed for a foldup chair instead of dancers. Only Bob Fosse has gotten away with turning bentwood cabaret chairs into something sexual, transforming them into props for a pole-styled dance, with dancers seducing the chairs to their whims like lovers interacting. “Be mine tonight, let this be just the start of so many nights like this, let’s make a lover’s vow and then seal it with a kiss.” But here, as throughout the program, the choreography lacked depth, angst, longing—all elements of the song, music, and lyrics–or juxtaposition to make it noteworthy–worthy of it being a homage.

            Only the segment danced to a lesser-known song, The Blob, that Bacharach wrote early in his career for the Steve McQueen film by the same name, felt fresh. Here the dancers, relying less on arm extensions, rolled and moved in slow motion from upstage to downstage, like a blob, consuming and tumbling chairs with them. It was a needed relief. As were the supreme vocals of Broadway singer, actress, and designer, Marcy Harriell whose nuanced singing was worth the price of admission, as she carried the show by giving it soul. Standing in the front of the orchestra pit, backed by Blaire Reinhard and Clinton Curtis, Harriell took us to the heart of the genius being celebrated with her subtle less is more approach, captivating us with her beauty in both appearance and range.

David e. Moreno

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