It would be easy for a choreographer to get caught up in the sincere passions of these familiar songs. That is to say familiar to a certain generation, although absolutely timeless: “Walk on By”, “I Say a Little Prayer”, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and almost a dozen ‘others. But Morris’s imaginative exploration of this music dives beneath the lushness of the surface to expose an honest feeling.
In doing so, he reveals that nothing is quite as it seems. The piece begins with some tinkling piano notes of “Alfie” – you’ll hear the lyrics in your head, “What is it, Alfie?– and it’s the first hint of the journey of search and constant change in store. What it is, indeed: the question haunts ‘The Look of Love’.
If love is the answer, it is not without peril. As the “What the World Needs Now” waltz begins – performed by luminous vocalist Marcy Harriell, two backing vocalists and a wonderful jazz band – the 10 dancers enter with deliberate uncertainty and flashes of paranoia, as if they’ve wandered on Mars. Soon they have paired up for a merry twirl, and just as quickly half of them are knocked down by the others. Cruel intention or recklessness?
The fun and bright costumes, designed by Isaac Mizrahi, are a riot of pink, purple and orange Barbiecore, with acidic counterpoints of mustard yellow and olive, to kick the sweetness down a notch. A woman’s long bodycon dress has a deep cut neckline and a side slit, but it’s more conservative than it looks. Below, she wears pants.
It’s all lively and colorful, loose and bouncy, but it’s not a daquiris dance party on the beach. No, luckily nothing is what you’d expect here. The hour-long production – Morris’ first major one-night work since his 2017 Beatles-inspired hit, “pepperland” – looks more like a series of predicaments. They increase in intensity, each resulting in the devastating loneliness and mystifying breakups that are at the heart of romantic comedies and advice columns. As the song progression unfolds, the dancers conjure up moments of ineffable universal experience that begin to feel as familiar as tunes and as intimate as muscle memories. It is as if they were dancing like the human heart behaves in the mist of love.
Because love has its bitter side, as these songs tell us over and over again. Lyricist David makes this very clear in “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” though Bacharach’s melody is deceptively perky. Thus, in a few skilful musical gestures, the couples bicker, get back together, separate. But Morris goes further. He’s in exquisite control from the vantage point here. His mastery of stage space directs our gaze to a single dancer, the elegant Billy Smith, so we feel his isolation as he stands in silent confusion, watching his partner, Karlie Budge, walk away from him with the kind of forward strength in her hips that says she’ll never come back.
The paradox of love: It can destroy us, but we always yearn for it. This is the truth that Morris relies on, song after song. Your loved one can leave town and change their name and you’ll be reduced to begging for a bird (a bird!) to find them. This is the story told, of course, in the searing ballad “Message to Michael”, where Morris changed the main character’s pronoun to “they” as a nod to the mystery at its heart and reference to a abandoned identity. Harriell’s vocals range masterfully from hushed intimacy to desperate, angry appeal, making you feel the destruction of a soul.
The soul is at stake here. In Morris’ rendition of the song, it’s not just about a breakup. It is spiritual death. In the middle of a circle of chairs on stage, the exquisitely musical dancer Dallas McMurray synchronizes with Harriell’s voice, but is he singing or preaching? He strikes a Christlike pose, arms outstretched, palms forward, and those around him leap to their feet, fists raised to the sky. Meanwhile, Smith goes through more emotional disintegration, chasing Budge as she walks past, out of reach, looking away. Everyone is constantly searching, searching, grasping.
The songs – beautifully arranged by Ethan Iverson, who also plays piano in the band – are brilliantly organized to highlight these twin pillars of loss and hope, with the optimism of one replaced by hardened reality. in the next. In a charismatic solo on “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”, Domingo Estrada Jr. recalls Gene Kelly’s carefree puddle jumping. Around him, couples huddle under raised floor cushions like umbrellas, but, as we’d expect at this point, sharing doesn’t come easily.
Bacharach wrote the theme song to “The Blob,” the 1958 sci-fi horror film starring Steve McQueen, who’s here too, its eerie vibe continuing the vaguely uneasy vibe that’s picking up steam. magnitude. This discomfort reaches its climax in “Don’t Make Me Over”, when Harriell’s voice reaches a theatrical force and the band turns up the heat. At this point, under lighting design by Nicole Pearce, the stage glows like a nightclub in the devil’s basement. McMurray runs madly, looking for someone he never finds. He collapses in a chair on a heavy downbeat that seems to drain him of his life. At the end of the song, he melts to the ground like a piece of candle wax.
But the choreographer does not leave him, nor us, there. Besides the brief flashes of cruelty, there is a lot of light. It floods the scene like the sun after a storm. Yet Morris is too honest an artist to deliver an unadulterated spurt. He is overly sensitive to the incongruities of our current state of existence, where humanity seems to be retreating into endless war, loss of rights, invincible disease, and the crumbling of what once seemed solid. Yes, that’s the big question: What is it about?
There are few answers here. We just carry on. And being vicariously engulfed in a hissing circle dance is a good way to gather the strength to do so.
Mark Morris Dance Group perform “The Look of Love” at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater until October 29. $29 – $119. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org.