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Dancemaker Mark Morris’s homage to Burt Bacharach was no light lift

“It’s never quite what you think,” the choreographer says of the pop star’s music, which is featured in Morris’s “The Look of Love,” coming to the Kennedy Center

Mark Morris dancers in “The Look of Love,” the choreographer's homage to Burt Bacharach. (Christopher Duggan)
6 min

NEW YORK — A lush, swinging waltz unspools from the grand piano. Standing beside it, a Broadway singer belts the lyrics to Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now,” her voice flying up to the stratosphere. Dancers rush toward one another, grasp hands, skip and spin, and the whole Brooklyn studio feels like it’s being whipped by winds of joy.

But Mark Morris, perched on a stool and clacking out the rhythm with a pair of clave sticks, finds plenty to quarrel with as he oversees this rehearsal of his new work. Titled “The Look of Love,” it features music by Bacharach, the hit songwriter of the 1960s and ’70s.

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“It’s not drifting,” chides Morris, who accepts no fumbling toward the goal. “The point of coming together is to dance. It’s, ‘Hey, would you like to dance?’ ” Turning to the musicians, he tells the electric keyboardist that he’s in the wrong pitch and the pianist that his left hand needs to be crisper.

It’s no simple thing to marshal both dancers and musicians at once, but Morris has scope. He is the unusual choreographer who is fluent in the differing languages of music and dance. In fact, he calls himself “a musician whose medium is dance,” an apt description considering the musically astute dances he has created over 42 years of running the Mark Morris Dance Group.

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Morris, 66, typically chooses to work with chamber music, such as Schubert, Handel or Lou Harrison. He insists on using live musicians, but since his budget isn’t endless, he generally limits them to three or four. Yet he needed more to do Bacharach justice, so for “The Look of Love,” which will be given its East Coast premiere at the Kennedy Center from Oct. 26 to 29, the ensemble includes piano, bass, drums, trumpet and three singers.

This is an all-out Bacharach celebration, and it’s also the first big, evening-length dance Morris has created since his 2017 Beatles-inspired hit “Pepperland.” While working on it, Morris and his frequent music collaborator, Ethan Iverson, spoke a couple of times over Zoom with Bacharach, who is 94 and living in California. (It’s hoped he can make it to the work’s world premiere, Oct. 20 in Santa Monica.)

“He’s thrilled this is happening,” says Iverson. “Who wouldn’t be?”

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Morris has high praise for Bacharach’s musical complexity, and the way his songs communicate human truth and are as rich in inspiration as any classical works he’s used.

“If you went to karaoke night and you tried to sing them, you’d get lost,” the choreographer says, unwinding after rehearsal with a glass of cabernet in the lamplight of his cozy, cluttered office in the Mark Morris Dance Center.

“Bacharach does transpositions and surprise modulations and extra beats and phrases,” Morris continues. “It’s not square, almost none of it. The music is a lot more interesting than that. It’s never quite what you think.”

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If it’s been a few decades since you thought of Bacharach, get ready for the sweet rush of Dionne Warwick’s voice when you recall these songs: “Walk on By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” Even “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me,” which was resurrected as a department store jingle a few years back. They’re all in this dance.

Of course, familiarity with Bacharach is a generational thing, even if his music is timeless.

“I know some of the songs mostly because of my parents,” says Morris dancer Domingo Estrada Jr., 37. “I mentioned some of the song titles to my mom and she went right into singing them.”

Finding a middle ground between what’s conventionally seen as “high” or “low” art is a Morris specialty. In previous works, he’s teased out the humor in Handel and illuminated the pathos in Beatles songs.

Bacharach’s music is a perfect playground for that blended approach. Morris and Iverson had been talking about a tribute piece to Bacharach for 10 or 15 years because, they say, Bacharach occupies a rare perch: writing music that’s instantly memorable and lodges in your brain, but that is also full of mixed meters, complex melodies and asymmetrical rhythms. These make it a bear to perform and tricky to choreograph to.

Bacharach’s songs are so catchy that “he’s taken for granted,” Iverson says. “A lot of people think it’s lightweight elevator music.” But they’re wrong.

Iverson, who arranged the Bacharach music, played the piano at this rehearsal and will perform on tour, points to “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” a jaunty tune disguising a cry of pain and heartbreak. Unlike most pop songs that are consistently in 4/4 time, or four beats per bar, this one contains a mix of two- and four-beat bars. There’s a two-beat bar at the beginning of the title lyric. Yet that’s just part of what makes the song unusual.

“You can’t ask a piano player to play it at a piano bar,” Iverson says. “Everyone knows how the song goes, but the musician can’t remember all the fiddly little bits that make it up.”

Marcy Harriell, the lead singer, says the vocal range of the songs is another challenge. “It’s up here and down there. Every song jumps that cliff.”

The songs are “like a math problem,” considering the unusual counts, she adds. “But you have to make the math beautiful, and phrase it so the message comes across.”

The lyrics make up the other half of Bacharach’s hitmaking equation. Most were written by Hal David. Each song used in “The Look of Love” tells a little story, and even if the tune is bouncy, the sentiment is wistful. This gave Morris a lot to explore in terms of gesture, emotional tone and atmosphere.

“It’s deep emotion,” he says. “They’re all about being abandoned and misunderstood. It’s very moving and very personal.”

The pleading anthem “Message to Michael,” for instance, can break your heart. “It’s not just, ‘Please don’t leave me,’ ” Morris says. “It’s ‘I love you so much and I’m destroyed by this.’ ”

As for the production’s title, it’s taken from one of Bacharach’s most popular songs. “That’s the point,” Morris says. “As the singer says, ‘It’s the look of love.’ As opposed to, this looks like love to me.”

He smiles and swirls the wine in his glass.

“And I’m pro-love.”

Mark Morris Dance Group Oct. 26-29 at the Kennedy Center.