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MMDG Delivers Fourteen New Arrangements


For its season opener at Jacob’s Pillow this week, the Mark Morris Dance Group presented the New England premiere of “The Look of Love” to an enthusiastic, sold-out crowd. This evening-length celebration featured 14 new arrangements for jazz combo of the songs of acclaimed American composer/songwriter Burt Bacharach, who passed away this spring. This season features a wide range of American and international companies, including ticketed performances, free talks and classes, and community events like a new “Dance Battle” and workshops with members of Dorrance Dance and the Martha Graham Company.

 “The Look of Love” project was developed by Bacharach and Mark Morris in 2022, employing the crucial voice of Boston-area jazz pianist and composer Ethan Iverson. Bacharach commented, “For many years, I’ve wanted to see my music reimagined in some kind of theatrical production – not just a jukebox musical formula of songs, but an original work with its own story and appeal. I’ve found an ideal collaborator in Mark Morris, whose brilliant choreography and deep musicality give songs new meaning and dimension through movement. Like a great melody, his dances evoke an atmosphere and inspire feelings, and I think that’s just what the world needs now.”

Ethan Iverson created a Baroque dance suite-cum-jazz concerto from 14 classic Bacharach songs: “Alfie” (1966, the title track from the film of the same, here in a beautiful instrumental version favoring the solo piano); “What the World Needs Now” (1965); “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (1968, from the musical Promises, Promises); “Message to Michael” (composed in 1964 as “Message to Martha” and recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1966 with updated words); “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” (written for the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid); “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” (1968); “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (1963); “Walk On By” (1963); “Don’t Make Me Over” (1962); “Are You There (with Another Girl) (1965); “The Blob” (recorded in 1958 by Bernie Knee and The Five Blobs for the Steve McQueen film of the same name); “Always Something There to Remind Me” (1963); “The Look of Love” (1967); “I Say a Little Prayer” (1966); and an instrumental coda based on “Alfie,” to frame the set.

The Man and His Company

American dancer Mark Morris (b. 1956) formed his own company in 1980 (film here) and has featured live musicians in every performance since 1996.  He first appeared at Jacob’s Pillow in 1982, and MMDG was first featured at the Pillow in 1986, the year they debuted on PBS’ Dance for America. He first performed at the Pillow in 1982, he was commissioned to create works for the Jacob’s Pillow Dancers in 1983 and 1984 (video here).

His work has been captured for film and television in iconic works such as Dido and Aeneas (interpreting Purcell’s influential 1689 score), The Hard Nut (an American Nutcracker, set in 1950s New York City), Falling Down Stairs, and L’Allegro, il Pensiero ed il Moderato (an abstract, but musical, 2015 creation inspired by Vivaldi.

From 1988-1991, MMDG served at the national dance company of Belgium (see the NYT article “Mark Morris: Loves Dance, Hates Brussels” here). They opened the Mark Morris Dance Center (Brooklyn, NY) in 2001 and maintain a West Coast home (Cal Performances at UC-Berkeley), and Midwestern home (Krannert Center at UIUC), plus annual visits to Washington, BAM, Lincoln Center, and Boston/Jacob’s Pillow. From the company’s many London seasons it has received two Laurence Olivier Awards at a Critic’s Circle Dance Award for Best Foreign Dance Company. His new memoir, Out Loud, was co-written with Wesley Stace (Penguin, 2021).

A prolific choreographer, Morris creates new works on both his own company (150+ works), major ballet companies including SFBallet and ABT (20+ ballets), and for the White Oak Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov. He was named a Macarthus Fellow in 1991 and has received eleven honorary doctorates to date. He has taught at the Tanglewood Music Center, conducted at Tanglewood, and served as the Music Director for the Ojai Music Festival in 2013.

Notable collections of MMDG memorabilia include the Pillow’s archive here, the MMDG’s own archive here, the New York Public Library here, and the National Museum of Dance. Since closing during the recent pandemic, the Museum is in the process of being restructured by the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Cornelius “Sonny” Vanderbilt Whitney donated his mother Gertrude’s extensive collection of dance photographs and dance-related art to establish the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs in 1987 and establishing a Dance Hall of Fame, into which Mark Morris was inducted in 2015. Mrs. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942), who grew up on Fifth Avenue and at The Breakers in Newport, was a trained sculptor who became one of America’s great art patrons: she supported the 1913 Armory Show, and was a leading collector of American art including members of the Ashcan School and memorabilia related to American dance. She founded the Whitney Museum of American Art after the Met declined her donation of 700+ American paintings supported by funding to build a whole wing to house them (they didn’t collect any American art in that point).

The Festival and Its Filmic Heritage

MMDG has appeared at Jacob’s Pillow more than any other company: the online access to the Pillow’s historical dance archive is unparalleled, and the site itself is the only American historical landmark dedicated to dance. As America’s oldest dance festival, Jacob’s Pillow has traditionally hosted 2-3 major companies per week while featuring younger groups and training the next generation of young dancers each July and August. Musicians interested in dance should watch every video in this new playlist of Pillow performances features onstage musicians here.

 I was a junior student at the 1982 Pillow festival when Mark Morris made his solo debut, and the staff took great pains to explain our debts to Ted Shawn (1938 film here), Ted Shawn’s Men Dancers (1937 film here), and Ruth St. Denis (1941 film here, following her 1920s study tour to India) who founded the Festival. Early pioneers of modern dance premiered works during the Pillow’s first decade, such as Barton Mumaw (1940 film here); Asadata Dafora (1941 film here); Talley Beatty (1948 film here); Ballet Theatre’s Fancy Free with music by Bernstein (1949 film here); Pearl Primus (1950 film here); and Merce Cunningham (1955 film here).

The Festival’s extensive free collections now feature video playlists including “Black Artists in the Duke” here; “Women Together” here; “Black Voices” here; Spirituals here; Hispanic and Latinx Artists here; Asian and Asian-American here; Flamenco here; and Indigenous Dance of the Americas here.

The Production

Contemporary discussions of the work include short evaluations from dance critics (here, here, here) and the dancing dips into Morris’ history, recalling earlier choreographies. As always, Morris is deeply sensitive to sweeping melodic lines and contrapuntal opportunities; he has a profound appreciation for form and symmetry, contrasting witty interpretations of lyrics with more abstract figures and formations from the full company. Dancers were each featured in solos and groups from two to ten in size: they included Mica Bernas, Karlie Budge, Domingo Estrada, Jr., Courtney Lopes, Dallas MacMurray, Brandon Randolph, Nicole Sabella, Christina Sahaida, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson.

 Costume and production designer Isaac Mizrahi, often described as both best friends and longtime collaborator with Mark Morris, has worked with MMDG over ten times. His colorful, blocked costumes allowed the ten dancers to develop fourteen different sets of relationships over the course of the suite: his initial plan was to use fawn and taupe-type neutrals for the dancers’ costumes, but then decided on black and white. The latter elicited a “meh” reaction from Morris, according to Mizrahi. However, after listening to Iverson’s arrangements, he switched tracks to exuberant colors like pinks, reds, ochre, orange, green and purple, including a blue unitard and skirt that is reminiscent of a short poodle skirt with a pink accent and five colorful card chairs. Mizrahi was particularly excited about the music for “The Look of Love,” gushing, “[Morris] knows I love Burt Bacharach. I grew up listening to Burt Bacharach. His music was really popular. You couldn’t escape it but I deeply, got into it. I got all of the records including the ones with Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield and all of the other people that he worked with.” Mizrahi even had the chance to interview Bacharach for Interview magazine: “He’s a real charmer. As a kid, I was not only in love with the music, but he was such a sexy cat. It was hard not to be made about Burt Bacharach — the man.”

The Music

The MMDG Music Ensemble has developed its own repertoire and made a lasting impact on composers for modern dance. Founded in 1996 and led by pianist Colin Fowler since 2005 (beginning with Mozart Dances), their repertory ranges from early Baroque suites (Purcell and John Wilson) to contemporary scores by Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, and Ethan Iverson, who has served on the jazz piano faculty at NEC since 2016 (Globe article here).

Iverson, named as one of 25 essential jazz icons in Time Out New York (2011, Steve Smith and Hank Steamer, link here) and featured on the March 2021 cover of Downbeat (link here), was a founding member of The Bad Plus, a seventeen-year project musical project which combined indie rock sensibilities with elements of post-60s rock in venues ranging from the Village Voice to Carnegie Hall. Together with bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King, Iverson created a jazz studio album “arrangement” of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (2014, listen here) and a radical reinvention of Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction (watch the live version of that studio album here). He has been a member of the Billy Hart Quartet for over a decade and will be featured as a jazz pianist in their upcoming one-week residence at the Village Vanguard from July 18-23 (info here). Iverson maintains his own extensive website of musical analysis and musician-to-musician interviews (Do the Math link here).

Iverson’s recent musical work includes a Thelonius Monk festival at Duke (2017), a new piano concerto for the American Composer’s Orchestra (2018), duo albums for ECM with Mark Turner (2018) and Tom Harrell (2019), a mini-concerto for big band (Bud Powell, 2021), and a new albums of originals with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jack DeJohnette (2022, Dwonbeat review here).

Iverson and Bacharach collaborated on The Look of Love, which begins its national tour with this week’s engagement at Jacob’s Pillow. With the exception of “Alfie,” the composer’s favorite of his own popular songs, all of the original Hal David lyrics were impeccably sung by In the Heights star Marcy Harriel (lead, insta here), Clinton Curtis (male harmony vocals and leads, website here), and Blaire Reinhard (female harmony vocals, leads, and a spectacular vocal fry “scream” achieved through prolonged inhalation, website here).

Featured instrumentalists included the fantastic and soulful Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet and Simón Willson (bass), Vinnie Sperrazza (drums), and Colin Fowler (piano) in a tight, grooving jazz trio. Fowler’s delicate rubato was on display in his gentle “Alfie” introduction to the suite, and leading melodies were passed seamlessly between Finlayson, Marcy Harriel, and the seamless, perfect intonation of Curtis and Reinhard’s vocal duo. The musicians performed on mike, live, from the Pillow’s new orchestra pit, interpreting Iverson’s challenging, dynamic arrangements with aplomb.

The musical and visual highlight of the set was a psychedelic, black-light “Blob,” setting the lyrics of Mack David (Hal’s brother) in closely dissonant minor seconds against the slow, screechy sound of female vocal fry (Reinhard). Marcy Harriel was the ideal interpreter of Bacharach’s songs for an audience familiar with Dionne Warwick’s groundbreaking musicality: her “Always Something There to Remind Me” played with vocal decay, a variety a timbres, and a nuanced sense of play to lift the pop standard to heights of classical ecstasy.

Laura Prichard teaches throughout the Boston area as a certified K-12 teacher of music/dance/art, as a theater pianist (Winchester Cooperative Theater), and at the university level (Harvard Libraries, Bunker Hill CC, and formerly at Northeastern and UMass). She was the Assistant Director for the Grammy Award-winning San Francisco Symphony Chorus from 1995-2003, under Vance George.

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