Review: Looking for Love With Burt Bacharach, and Finding a Prayer

Review: Looking for Love With Burt Bacharach, and Finding a Prayer

In most parts of the world, it’s true that love — the sweeter the better — is the only thing that there’s just too little of. In Mark Morris’s “The Look of Love,” set to music by Burt Bacharach with new arrangements by Ethan Iverson, love is the fuel, the pursuit, the ultimate destination. There are hugs, there are outstretched arms — to say a little prayer for you, Morris-style — and there is heartbreak. In some moments the dancers’ bodies wilt, as if caught in a sigh.

The work, set to 14 songs and running at just over an hour, opened with the curtain down and an instrumental overture of “Alfie” by Iverson, whose piano playing was delicate but still cut through the air, quieting the energy of the crowd. When the curtain rose to “What the World Needs Now,” it felt apt, setting the tone for a dance in which love is the wellspring for choreographic expression.

But fully entering the world of “The Look of Love,” which opened Wednesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, was not always smooth sailing, especially in the beginning when the movement echoed the lyrics so pointedly and with such repetition that it was hard for anything to stick. The experience was like standing in gentle ocean waves and watching them wash over your slowly sinking feet. Again. And again.

For all its lovely moments and wonderful musicians, “Look of Love” didn’t seem full enough to stand alone as an evening-length work. Morris makes dances because of music; it is a firm part of his artistic aesthetic that the two are in relationship, but they weren’t always on equal footing. In many instances the music overpowered the movement, especially when Marcy Harriell, the marvelous vocalist and Broadway actress, was belting from the pit. She gives Bacharach’s songs, with Hal David’s lyrics, a captivating modernity complete with warmth and power.

But as the dance progressed, a certain softness prevailed, reinforced by the choreography’s buttery pliés, shapely arms and softly bent knees in leg extensions. That helped to focus the frame for Morris’s look at love, which was only occasionally saccharine. There were times when it was weird, too, for better — the spooky comedic number set to music (by Bacharach and Mack David) for the 1958 sci-fi horror movie, “The Blob” — and for worse, as when Dallas McMurray lip-synced “Message to Michael” as though he was a beatnik in a cafe run by Doris Day.

As for its look? Isaac Mizrahi’s costumes and production design are like an unquenchable desire for hope. The dancers wear separates that pop in a sunny array of orange, pink, purple, red and yellow and glow under Nicole Pearce’s lighting design, which saturates the stage with color. Folding chairs and cushions, moved by the dancers throughout, make for a malleable, D.I.Y. set.

As the dance started to find its way, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” was the first bright spot — obvious yet sweetly so as dancers hopped onto the stage like drops of water and held out their arms, palms up, for a trace of drizzle. (Along with Iverson, the music ensemble, led by Colin Fowler, was a vibrant force and included Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Simón Willson on bass, Vinnie Sperrazza on drums and Clinton Curtis and Blaire Reinhard on backup vocals.)

Flashes, like lighting, broke up the joviality and caused them to leap in fear. But throughout it all, Courtney Lopes, radiantly slinky and in a long orange dress, morphed into Gene Kelly as she performed a soft-shoe routine as though she were dancing in rain. As the dancers gathered around her, she seemed to be a mermaid in a fountain.

While the others tried to hide from the rain, she basked in it, with the kind of dance joy that is fully identifiable with Morris — the way he can present the expected in unexpected ways. The car driving formations in “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” — complete with the round cushions as steering wheels — were a bit much. But “Walk on By,” a seemingly simple walking dance, amplified Bacharach’s lively rhythms and turned the song into a story about life and how its converging paths contain innumerable choices.

The lively grapevines in “Always Something There to Remind Me” etched sleek patterns across the floor, while “The Look of Love” was full of softly turning lifts for Noah Vinson and Lopes, that showed Morris’s elegant restraint. It was also a reminder that this dance isn’t about the look of lust; if anything, it’s a platonic, two twin beds kind of love.

When “I Say a Little Prayer” began, the dancers were slumped over, seemingly asleep, the moment before Harriell sang the first line: “The moment I wake up.” Alas, this was the kind of too-pat moment that made my body sigh.

But when they did swirl to life, you know, putting on their makeup, they were at their most free-spirited and communal, slipping in jaunty phrases — stepping side to side while stiffly flapping their arms slightly behind their backs like adorable penguins — alongside sweeping, robust movement. They formed a circle, one of Morris’s most satisfying choreographic motifs, and created something of a carousel as they passed one dancer onto the next.

Circles with outstretched arms and flexed hands pressed together returned, mirroring patterns from the start of the dance, just as another rendition of “Alfie” came back, this time with full orchestration. The dancers positioned themselves on the chairs with decorative, curving arms that they later held out like offerings in which to absorb troubles of the world. “Are we meant to take more than we give” — as the lyrics, unsung in this instance, to “Alfie” go — “or are we meant to be kind?” More than capturing the look of love, this dance is a prayer, to and for love.

“The Look of Love”

Through March 23 at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn; bam.org

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