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Mark Morris’s tribute to Burt Bacharach is what the world needs now

Nothing is as it seems in this brilliant journey performed by Mark Morris Dance Group at the Kennedy Center

Nothing is as it seems in “The Look Of Love,” a tribute to Burt Bacharach and Hal David music, at the Kennedy Center. (Skye Schmidt)

There is no emotional glop in Mark Morris’s witty, wounding and brilliant new dance production, “The Look of Love,” which opened at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday. No excess of sentiment whatsoever, though, good lord, there could have been, since the live musical accompaniment is a string of brokenhearted hits from the 1960s by songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

It would be easy for a choreographer to get tripped up by the earnest passions of these familiar songs. Familiar, that is, to a certain generation, though they are absolutely timeless: “Walk on By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and nearly a dozen more. But Morris’s imaginative exploration of this music dives beneath the surface lushness to expose honest feeling.

In doing so, he reveals that nothing is quite as it seems. The piece begins with a few tinkling piano notes of “Alfie” — you’ll hear the lyric in your head, “What’s it all about, Alfie?” — and this is the first hint of the searching and constantly shifting journey in store. What’s it all about, indeed: The question haunts “The Look of Love.”

If love is the answer, it’s not without peril. As the waltzy “What the World Needs Now” begins — performed by luminous chanteuse Marcy Harriell, two backup singers and a marvelous jazz band — the 10 dancers enter with deliberate uncertainty and flashes of paranoia, as if they have wandered onto Mars. Soon they have paired up for cheerful whirling, and just as quickly half of them are casually knocked over by the others. Cruel intent or obliviousness?

The bright fun costumes, designed by Isaac Mizrahi, are a riot of Barbiecore pink, purple and orange, with acidic counterpoints of mustard yellow and olive, to take the sweetness down a notch. One woman’s long slinky gown has a deeply cut neckline and a slit up the side, but she is more guarded than she appears. Underneath she is wearing pants.

It is all lively and colorful, loose and bouncy, but this is not a daquiris-on-the-beach dance party. No, thankfully, nothing is what you would expect here. The hour-long production — Morris’s first major evening-length work since his 2017 Beatles-inspired hit, “Pepperland” — is more like a series of predicaments. They escalate in intensity, each one resulting in the devastating aloneness and mystifying breakups that are at the core of rom-coms and advice columns. As the progression of songs unspools, the dancers conjure up moments of ineffable universal experience that begin to feel as familiar as the tunes, and as intimate as muscle memories. It is as if they are dancing the way the human heart behaves in the fog of love.

For love has its sour side, as these songs tell us over and over. Lyricist David makes that abundantly clear in “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” though Bacharach’s tune is deceptively perky. Accordingly, with a few deft musical gestures, the couples bicker, get back together, break up. But Morris goes deeper. He is in exquisite control of point of view here. His command of the stage space directs our eye to a single dancer, the elegantly restrained Billy Smith, so we feel his isolation as he stands in quiet confusion, watching his partner, Karlie Budge, stride away from him with the kind of forward force in her hipbones that says she is never coming back.

The paradox of love: It can destroy us, yet still we yearn for it. That is the truth that Morris builds upon, song by song. Your special someone might leave town and change their name and you’ll be reduced to begging a bird (a bird!) to track them down. That is the story told, of course, in the searing ballad “Message to Michael,” where Morris changed the title character’s pronoun to “they” as a nod to the mystery at its heart and the reference to a discarded identity. Harriell’s voice ranges masterfully from hushed intimacy to a desperate, raging plea, making you feel the destruction of a soul.

The soul is on the line here. In Morris’s interpretation of the song, it is not just about a breakup. It is spiritual death. Amid a circle of chairs onstage, the exquisitely musical dancer Dallas McMurray lip syncs to Harriell’s vocals, but is he singing or preaching? He adopts a Christlike pose, arms spread, palms forward, and those gathered around him leap to their feet, fists thrust at the sky. Meanwhile, Smith goes through more emotional disintegration, chasing Budge as she flies past, out of reach, gazing elsewhere. Everyone is searching, searching, endlessly grasping.

The songs — beautifully arranged by Ethan Iverson, who also plays piano in the band — are brilliantly organized to highlight those twin pillars of loss and hope, with the optimism of one replaced by hardened reality in the next. In a charismatic solo to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” Domingo Estrada Jr. brings to mind Gene Kelly’s insouciant puddle-jumping. Around him, couples cluster under floor cushions raised overhead as umbrellas, but, as we have come to expect by this point, sharing does not come easily.

Bacharach wrote the theme song for “The Blob,” the 1958 sci-fi horror film starring Steve McQueen, which is in here too, its weird vibe continuing the vaguely uneasy mood that is been gathering steam. This unease builds to a climax in “Don’t Make Me Over,” when Harriell’s voice reaches theater-filling force and the band kicks up the heat. At this point, under Nicole Pearce’s lighting design, the stage glows like a nightclub in the devil’s basement. McMurray runs madly about, looking for someone he never finds. He collapses into a chair on a heavy downbeat that seems to suck the life out of him. By the end of the song, he melts to the floor like a lump of candle wax.

But the choreographer does not leave him, or us, there. Alongside the brief flashes of cruelty there is plenty of light. It floods the stage like sunshine after a storm. Yet Morris is too honest an artist to deliver unalloyed gushing. He is too sensitive to the incongruities of our current state of existence, where humanity seems to be spiraling backward into endless war, loss of rights, unconquerable disease and the crumbling away of what once felt solid. Yes, this is the big question: What’s it all about?

There are few answers here. We simply go on. And being vicariously swallowed up in a whizzing circle dance is a fine way to gather the strength to do so.

Mark Morris Dance Group performs “The Look of Love” at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through Oct. 29. $29-$119. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org.

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