By Elizabeth Gracen:
Let’s start with the ending: the vibrant Mark Morris appearing from the wings with his usual joie de vivre. Delighted, the audience (all on their feet) would give him and his company five curtain calls before it was all over, a rousing “thank you” for the confectionary tribute that is The Look of Love—a pastel-soaked retro portal back in time to the days when the infectious melodies of Burt Bacharach and the iconic lyrics of Hal David dominated the radio airwaves.
Morris, with a playful twinkle in his eye, relishes attention in just the right way, his status as a leading choreographer cemented in the dance world. The audience in attendance for this Sunday matinee are true fans, and Morris knows it. He bows, a wry smile on his face, and with an almost imperceptible but undeniable twist of his wrist, he directs the cast, musicians, and even the audience to bask in the joy of the moment. We were putty in his hands.
The Mark Morris Dance Group, founded in 1980 with over 150 works now in their oeuvre, is a beacon of success in the modern dance world. In partnership with the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, they created the innovative Dance for PD® flagship program that benefits the Parkinson community in the New York area and in over 300 communities, 42 states, and 25 countries across six continents through affiliate programs.
When I saw the BroadStage announcement for the show, I quickly invited my friend and long-time collaborator Hilary Thomas—an accomplished choreographer and the Artistic Director of The Lineage Performing Arts Center (LPAC) in Pasadena. LPAC offers an eclectic selection of performances, classes, and community outreach and is the home of Southern California’s groundbreaking Dance For Joy program that, incidentally, originated with instruction from David Leventhal, Program Director and Founding Teacher of the Dance for PD® at Mark Morris Dance Group.
With my nostalgia for Bacharach’s music and Hilary’s unique artistic perspective, we made the perfect date for a Sunday afternoon outing.
The performance began in the orchestra pit with a lilting piano solo of "Alfie," played by Ethan Iverson, who is credited with the musical arrangements for the show. It was the first indication that we were in for straightforward, subtle entertainment. A quick look at the program informed you that there would be no intermission, the song list chockablock full with familiar melodies of “What the World Needs Now,” “Do You Know the Way to San José,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “Don’t Make Me Over,” “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Walk On By,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “Message to Michael,” “I Say A Little Prayer,” and “The Look of Love.” Let’s just say that is was all I could do to not sing along.
What kept me from doing so was the outstanding lead vocal performance of Marcy Harriell, her voice a perfect match for the familiar Bacharach melodies. It was the highlight of the show. Her vocal prowess provided that necessary confidence needed for the audience to relax, knowing Bacharach's/David's music was in capable hands.
I’m not a dancer, and even though I spend a lot of time with dancers at LPAC, my vocabulary is limited when it comes to describing technique and choreography, but as soon as the dancers appeared onstage carrying folding chairs in their simple, sherbet-colored Isaac Mizrahi–designed costumes, my initial feeling was one of disappointment; and unfortunately, I never fully recovered.
There was something too silly and basic about the presentation and choreography. At certain points, the dance moves literally matched the lyrics. For example, during “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” a dancer pantomimes a sneeze into his hand at the lyric, “What do you get when you kiss a girl? You get enough germs to catch pneumonia.” At another point, a dancer created the childhood “airplane wings” with arms outstretched at her side as she zoomed around the stage to simulate an airplane. Were we supposed to laugh; or am I simply too cynical to enjoy this happy-yet-unsurprising choreography? After the show, when Hilary and I discussed the overall production, she explained that Morris’ style is a true example of classic modern dance versus the more familiar, contemporary style that the public is used to seeing on shows such as So You Think You Can Dance. It’s all a matter of taste, right?
Honestly, it took six songs into the show, with “Don’t Make Me Over,” before I relaxed and just “went with it.” Once again, the gorgeous, rich vocals of Ms. Harriell and her backup singers (Clinton Curtis and Blaire Reinhard) cradled my unease, and I found myself smiling, my appreciation growing for the dancers’ graceful, nonstop hour-long performance, their artistic precision now a comfort, the company’s dedication and Morris’ homage to a simpler time feeding an expression of gentle aesthetic. By the end, I felt lighter, and as Morris surprised everyone with his own curtain calls, I was on my feet, smiling and shouting, “Bravo, brava” along with everyone else.
I’m always on the lookout for joy, for anything that resonates with positivity in this ratty world, and even though my taste runs a bit more obscure than The Mark Morris Dance Group’s The Look of Love, my spirits were nonetheless lifted as I left the gorgeous BroadStage venue. I forgot about political polarization, the midterms, the climate crisis, and world hunger for one pastel-imbued hour. I was grateful to all involved.
If you’re in the mood for such a thing, you can catch The Look of Love on tour in 2023 at the Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond in VA in January, Cal Performance in Berkeley, CA, in February, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana, IL, in April, and UC Santa Barbara Arts and Lectures in May.