Mark Morris creates a dance tribute to hitmaker Burt Bacharach



NEW YORK — A lush, catchy waltz unfolds from the grand piano. Standing nearby, a Broadway singer sings the words to Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now,” her voice soaring into the stratosphere. Dancers rush towards each other, hold hands, hop and spin, and the entire Brooklyn studio feels like it’s being whipped by winds of joy.

But Mark Morris, perched on a stool and slamming the beat with a pair of clave sticks, finds cause for quarrel 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 1970s.

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“It’s not derivative“, reprimands Morris, who does not accept any trial and error towards the goal. “The point of coming together is Dance. It’s, ‘Hey, do you want to dance?’ Turning to the musicians, he tells the electric keyboard player that he’s in the wrong key and the pianist that his left hand needs to be sharper.

It’s not easy to bring together both dancers and musicians, but Morris has room. He is an atypical choreographer who speaks fluently the different 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 created during his 42 years leading the Mark Morris Dance Group.

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Morris, 66, usually chooses to work with chamber music, such as Schubert, Handel or Lou Harrison. He is keen to use live musicians, but since his budget isn’t infinite, he usually limits them to three or four. Still, he needed more to do Bacharach justice, so for “The Look of Love,” which will premiere on the East Coast at the Kennedy Center October 26-29, the set includes piano, bass, drums, trumpet and three singers. .

It’s a total celebration of Bacharach, and it’s also the first big one-night dance Morris has created since his 2017 Beatles-inspired hit “Pepperland.” While working on it, Morris and his frequent musical collaborator, Ethan Iverson, spoke a few times about Zoom with Bacharach, who is 94 and lives in California. (We hope he can make it to the work’s world premiere on October 20 in Santa Monica.)

“He’s thrilled it’s happening,” Iverson said. ” Who would not be ?

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Morris praises Bacharach’s musical complexity and how his songs communicate human truth and are as rich in inspiration as any classical works he has used.

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

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

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If it’s been a few decades since you last thought of Bacharach, prepare for the gentle rise 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 José. Even “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me,” which was resurrected as a department store jingle a few years ago. 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 started singing them.”

Finding a middle ground between what is traditionally considered “high” or “low” art is a specialty of Morris. In earlier works, he unveiled Handel’s humor and illuminated the pathos of Beatles songs.

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

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

Iverson, who arranged Bacharach’s music, played piano during this rehearsal and will perform on tour, stresses “I’ll never fall in love again,” a playful tune masking a cry of pain and grief. Unlike most pop songs which are constantly in 4/4 or four beats per bar, this one contains a mix of two and four beats. There is a two-beat bar at the beginning of the title’s lyrics. Still, that’s only part of what makes the song unusual.

“You can’t ask a pianist to play it in a piano bar,” Iverson says. “Everyone knows how the song goes, but the musician can’t remember all the tricky little bits that go into it.”

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

The songs are “like a math problem,” given the unusual counts, she adds. “But you have to make the math beautiful and formulate it to get the message across.”

Lyrics are the other half of Bacharach’s success equation. Most were written by Hal David. Each song used in “The Look of Love” tells a little story, and even though the melody is bouncy, the feeling is melancholic. It gave Morris a lot to explore in terms of gesture, emotional tone and atmosphere.

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

The pleading anthem “Message to Michael”, for example, 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 destroy by that.’ ”

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

He smiles and swirls the wine around in his glass.

“And I’m pro-love.”

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


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