The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival’s 91st season opened on June 30 with the return of Mark Morris Dance Group. In her welcoming remarks, artistic and executive director Pamela Tagte noted that MMDG has appeared at the Pillow more than any other troupe (24 times!), and given that there was nary an empty seat in the Ted Shawn Theatre, the company’s popularity merits that distinction.
I’ve been watching Mark Morris ever since his company performed for free in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. That first viewing made me an avid follower of his career. Morris soon made the leap to the formidable stages of the nearby Brooklyn Academy of Music, and his well established company is now headquartered right around the corner from that esteemed performing arts center.
Morris first performed at Jacob’s Pillow in 1982, in a reconstruction of a dance by Pillow founder Ted Shawn—Mevlevi Dervish—which required a dancer who could continuously spin for about three minutes without spotting. (Archival photo above by Stephan Driscoll.) Since then, he has become a regular presence in the Berkshires, where MMDG has also performed at Tanglewood, most memorably with celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma in one of Morris’s chefs d’oeuvre, Falling Down Stairs, set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite No. 3 for Unaccompanied Cello.
Which brings us to one of the qualities that famously distinguishes Morris: his musicality. His choreography melds seamlessly with music, and for years he has also been conducting music and opera performances. Morris values having live musicians accompany his dances, and so it was with great joy that Tatge pointed out the Pillow’s new orchestra pit, which could accommodate Morris’s seven-piece music ensemble, including remarkable lead vocalist Marcy Harriell and two enchanting background vocalists: Clinton Curtis and Blaire Reinhard.
In his first Pillow engagement since pre-pandemic 2019, Morris brought his ensemble to accompany ten dancers from his company in his latest evening-length work: The Look of Love. Widely heralded as an homage to the recently departed hit-maker Burt Bacharach, this approximately hour-long dancework is set to some of Bacharach’s most iconic songs, arranged by longtime Morris collaborator Ethan Iverson. These songs are so much a part of American pop culture that when the performance kicks off with an extended, instrumental version of “Alfie” before the curtain (lit in a pastel blue) rises, audience members may find it hard to restrain themselves from singing along to the music. As is the case for the string of hits that follows.
As a counterpoint to falling down stairs, this piece is all about falling in love, being in love, or falling out of love, starting with the winsome “What the World Needs Now,” perfectly suited to the loose, waltz-like choreography. The dancers sport loose clothing in cheery hues of pink, orange, yellow, chartreuse, and lilac, cut to catch every spin, slide, and sway, moves that form the foundation of this work. The scenic design matches the sunny palette of the costumes with brightly colored folding chairs and cushions that the dancers swing around and move as part of the choreography, against a backdrop lit with solid, jewel-toned colors. (Isaac Mizrahi, another longtime Morris collaborator, designed the production.) The easy breezy music, movement, and color scheme combine to produce a very Southern California-in-more-innocent-times feel for the evening.
Both the songs’ rhythms and lyrics inspire the choreography for the 13 pieces that comprise The Look of Love. Thus, in “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” we see a stylized pantomime of couples kissing, ignoring phone calls, pushing each other away, and reuniting with leaps and embraces. (That’s the “So for at least until tomorrow” part.) In “Message to Michael,” dancer Dallas McMurray, standing and gesturing upstage, seems to be delivering a sermon to five others seated in a semicircle of chairs and cushions around him, while in the foreground two couples soar across the stage like an airmail delivery. In “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” dancers use the cushions to cover their heads in an imaginary downpour, stepping gingerly to avoid imaginary puddles, with one shaking the rain from his hair like a wet dog. And in “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?,” we see dancers repeatedly splay arms and legs on the diagonal in a star shape, then blow away imaginary dust from broken dreams of stardom from the palms of their hands.
Did you know that Bacharach wrote the music for theme song to the 1958 movie, The Blob? (And did you know that the movie starred Steve McQueen?) This song crops up about two thirds into the evening, a goofy interlude in which a cluster of dancers “creeps and leaps and glides and slides across the floor,” ending by surrounding one who stands in mock terror center stage. “Beware of the blob,” indeed.
The Look of Love is built on a clear movement vocabulary including graceful runs, long sweeping steps, short side-to-side steps, diagonal limb extensions, horizontal arm extensions with flexed wrists, upward parallel arm extensions with fingers reaching toward the sky, twirling jumps, lofty leaps with legs bent in attitude, sweeping lifts, clever weight transfers, powerful jumps caught by partners, and bravura mid-air tilted barrel rolls. The floor patterns tend toward circles and diagonals. For me, one of most engaging pieces was a straightforward interpretation of “Walk on By,” consisting of the dancers—split into two groups of five—walking briskly, determinedly, in strict unison to the beat of the song, tracing intricate straight-line patterns across the stage—or forward and back—making precision turns as a linear unit, hustling every now and then to avoid the other group, dividing the stage into shifting halves and quadrants, tossing in a jump-spin, and never the twain do meet until a surprising diagonal flourish near the end.
The Look of Love was a perfect choice to kick off the summer: bright and breezy, full of whimsy and humor, mixed with a subtle dose of sweet nostalgia. The dancers—a group diverse in age, body, race—pulled it off with aplomb, not even breaking a sweat despite the demands of moving nonstop for an hour, serving up a delightful start to the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
Mark Morris Dance Group performs at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts, June 28–July 2.