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Woody Weingarten

Diverse Mark Morris Dance Group uses varied Burt Bacharach music as kaleidoscopic playground

By February 20, 2023February 24th, 2023No Comments

The Mark Morris Dance Group performs The Look of Love, Burt Bacharach’s music. Photo by Molly Bartels.

The Look of Love: An Evening of Dance to the Music of Burt Bacharach, The Mark Morris Dance Group’s latest, can be appreciated even if the pop composer’s melodies aren’t your fave.

You might end up, in fact, tickled pink (or orange or yellow).

The audience at the weekend’s Zellerbach Hall presentation in Berkeley clearly was thrilled. It not only jumped to a standing ovation but clapped enough to encourage choreographer Morris and his performers to take multiple bows.

 Mary Harriell (left), lead singer in The Look of Love; choreographer Mark Morris (center); and arranger Ethan Iverson. Photo by Trevor Izzo.

The music of Bacharach, whose Feb. 8 death at age 94 unexpectedly turned the Feb. 17-19 outing into a bittersweet memorial, was introduced via a melancholy solo-piano opener by Ethan Iverson — Morris’ musical collaborator and arranger — on “Alfie,” whose questioning lyric set the tone, “What’s it all about?”

Surprisingly, the most innovative moments in The Look of Love came in the form of a little-known, 1958 sci-fi/horror flick charmer, “The Blob.” Dancers ended up in a jammed cluster, moving in slow motion and using colored bridge chairs as props and a barricade while singers simulated Mark David lyrics like a deejay intentionally decelerating an LP for effect. The sequence drew both giggles and guffaws.

Wit and whimsy, of course, have long been Morris staples, along with huge helpings of passion. Indeed, Morris’ most enduring creation, arguably, is 1991’s “The Hard Nut,” a parody of the classic “Nutcracker.”

The Mark Morris Dance Group performs The Look of Love, Burt Bacharach’s music. Photo by Skye Schmidt.

Although some pundits wince at the choreographer’s winks to audiences, such as an evergreen in which dancers pat their heart to indicate love, it can nevertheless be fun to see hoofers sneeze at the word pneumonia in “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”

Some crowd members appeared slightly befuddled, however, by Morris’ gender-bending, identity changes in “Message to Michael,” where the lead character becomes a “they” instead of a “he” — in a song already laden with heaviness.

Still, most tunes were presented straightforward and unadorned yet showing off the mixed-meter complexity of the music, always with spare sets limited to chairs and cushions, and yet they evoked the imprint of six-time Grammy award vocalist Dionne Warwick, who’s still touring at age 82. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” was an exception, with the dancers repeatedly looking skyward while the voices staccatoed the word “Rain” about 71 times before segueing into the rhythms virtually everyone knew.

The dancing often shone, in sync with Bacharach’s music (which smoothly dips into Brazilian rhythms, jazz and rock) but occasionally becoming more compelling than the repetitiousness of the dancers’ hand and body movements. Meanwhile, Iverson’s arrangements built an exquisite showcase for lead vocalist Mary Harriell, who can alternately be sultry, soulful, a belter, or a jazz singer scat-riffing, a thrush whose voice is amazingly larger than even her massive Afro; backup singers Clinton Curtis and Blaire Reinhard, consistently impeccable in the pit behind Harriell; and Jonathan Finlayson, whose trumpet sometimes punctuated the songs with spurts exuding joy.

Burt Bacharach. Photo, courtesy Cal Performances.

Once in a while, though, Hal David’s unsentimental and sometimes pessimistic words clashed with Morris’ upbeat brainstorms.

Domingo Estrada Jr.’s mini-solos stood out among the dancers, not unlike toddlers in a playground glided, twirled, pranced, stretched, skipped, ran, jumped, rolled on the floor, and stiff-armed the air like a running back on a football field.

Never to be ignored is fashionista Isaac Mizrahi, whose costume designs justified a gush or two. Primary colors blended with slightly less prominent hues, all in subtle collage patterns. Tunics and skirts and dresses, shorts and long pants, long sleeves and sleeveless, no two dancers dressed alike. Overall, a rainbow kaleidoscope — similar to the varied skin tones of the performers.

The 66-year-old Morris, a Seattle native, has been immersed in music since he was 8 and, after seeing a performance by the José Greco flamenco company, decided to become a Spanish dancer. Three years later, having taken classes, he started performing professionally. His entrance into choreography was delayed, however — until age 14. He launched this troupe in 1980, and quickly developed a reputation for experimentation and out-of-the-box humor that gave him the label “bad boy of modern dance.”

This presentation is basically a juke-box musical without book. Underscoring that notion was Morris’ injecting “What the World Needs Now,” the 65-minute, intermission-less program’s second number that featured a circle dance, the most prevalent motif in the Cal Performances concert; “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” in which dancers repeatedly turn into jacks-in-a-box sans box, “Walk on By” (which had the audience toe-tapping in unison), “Always Something There to Remind Me,” “I Say a Little Prayer” (the finale), and the title tune.

Iverson, who’d previously teamed up with the choreographer for 2017’s Pepperland, a tribute to the Beatles, got over-the-top gushy when talking to a scribe for The New York Times last year. “I would put Bacharach up there with Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin as part of The American Songbook,” he was quoted as saying. “These are songs you hear once and never forget.”

The arranger’s opinion about Bacharach being in the composing firmament could be debated, surely, without demeaning the songwriter’s talent.

During the pandemic, Morris was forced to cancel after a lone Zellerbach show because of a Covid outbreak. His company has been performing in Berkeley for more than 30 years, though. And this new outing indicates, with apologies to poet Robert Frost, that he has miles to go before he sleeps.

Upcoming dance concerts at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley include Step Afrika! on Feb. 25 and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from April 11 to 16. Info: 510-642-9988 or

Woody Weingarten, a longtime member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle, can be contacted by email at or on his websites, and https://vitality