The Mark Morris Dance Group will performs The Look of Love this Friday–Sunday, Feb. 17–19, in Zellerbach Hall. Credit: Skye Schmidt

And just like that, everything changed. 

When talking to choreographer Mark Morris just days ago about this weekend’s Bay Area premiere of The Look of Love: An Evening of Dance to the Music of Burt Bacharach, the new work still existed in a world shared by the iconic composer.

The Look of Love: An Evening of Dance to the Music of Burt Bacharach, Mark Morris Dance Group, Zellerbach Hall, Feb. 17-19

With Bacharach’s death on Feb. 8 at the age of 94, the Cal Performances presentation this weekend at Zellerbach Hall suddenly took on a retrospective aura, joining a conversational scrum attempting to take the measure of the extraordinary, era-defining body of songs he wrote, mostly with lyricist Hal David (1921-2012). A Cal Performances mainstay since 1987, Morris wanted to put the dance in proper perspective, noting the coincidental timing of The Look of Love following the Mark Morris Dance Group’s acclaimed Beatles production Pepperland

“We’re not a doing a series or anything,” he said. “The Look of Love was a long time brewing. I’ve always loved this music, every single heartbreaking song, which seem so peppy and then when you concentrate on the lyrics you want to kill yourself. All the words are going in the wrong direction, and the music is so strange and rangy and surprising.”

It’s not just the fact that Morris set the dance to canonical pop music in The Look of Love that parallels Pepperland. He’s once again collaborating with costume designer Isaac Mizrahi and pianist/composer Ethan Iverson, whose solo career has taken off since he left The Bad Plus, the popular jazz trio he founded at the turn of the century with bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King. 

For The Look of Love, he and Morris focus on the prolific window of 1964-69, when Bacharach and David created hit after hit with Dionne Warwick, including “Walk on By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “What the World Needs Now,” “Alfie,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”  

Catching up with Iverson by phone on Monday, he was grateful that he wrote the arrangements before “the big reassessment that happens when a major figure dies,” he said. “Both with the Beatles and this one many people have used the word nostalgia for this ‘60s era music. I don’t see it that way. For me this is just the stuff I work on, like working on Bach or Ellington or Schubert. Bacharach lived so long I got to meet him and play the score for him, which was an amazing life moment for me. The work was not nostalgic and the fact he was still alive kept it from being retrospective.”

The encounter with Bacharach took place last October in Santa Monica after the composer attended a dress rehearsal before the world premiere at the Broad Stage. Afterwards he asked to speak with Iverson, “and I went up to him kind of nervous,” he said. 

“You can’t worry about the composer when you’re making the piece. You have to carve out your own space. It’s not karaoke. There are things in the score that are really not like Bacharach. But he was so nice. He gave me a seal of approval. He said, ‘Make sure the tempos don’t go any faster than that.’ I didn’t expect to be so moved.”

Unlike Pepperland, which featured a seven-piece instrumental group, Iverson’s arrangements for The Look of Love use a quartet in support of vocalist Marcy Harriell. A Broadway veteran known for her work on RentLennon and In the Heights (starring opposite Lin-Manuel Miranda), she’s joined by backing singers Clinton Curtis and Blaire Reinhard, “which seemed essential for those songs,” Iverson said, “with the lead singer telling her story and the background singers agreeing.” 

The band features Iverson on piano, Chilean bassist Simón Willson, drummer Vinny Sperrazza, and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, a Berkeley High grad who’s making a rare hometown appearance. Part of a brilliant cadre of players who came out of the Berkeley High Jazz Band in the late 1990s, he’s spent the past two decades in the thick of action in New York, working with state-of-the-art improvisers and composers such as Pulitzer Prize-winning saxophonist Henry Threadgill, Steve Lehman, Mary Halvorson, Craig Taborn, and Steve Coleman (who took Finlayson under his wing upon his graduation in 2000). 

Iverson loves tapping into Brooklyn’s deep jazz talent pool for the MMDG productions, and reached out to Finlayson when the trumpeter was ready for a different kind of challenge. “He said, ‘You’re over-qualified to do this, but I was wondering if you might be interested in playing Bacharach’s music for a Mark Morris production. It can be a good time,’” Finlayson recalled.

In fact, Finlayson had been immersing himself in Bacharach’s music lately, songs that he paid close attention to growing up. He knew the Warwick hits, but was closer to Luther Vandross’s “Any One Who Had a Heart” and Aretha Franklin’s “I Say a Little Prayer” and “This Girl’s in Love with You.”

“I didn’t realize it was originally ‘This Guy,’” he said. “Those recordings were my gateway into this music, the take on his music coming from the Black community.”

As much as he loved the songs, Finlayson was apprehensive about taking a gig that requires playing the same score night after night, a practice antithetical to the fierce improvisational situations he usually inhabits. He decided to take the plunge “and to my surprise it’s very fresh and fun,” he said. “It’s a challenge and a beautiful feeling to be with these musicians. I hear something new every time. And I’ve gotten more comfortable. I’m not counting all the time.”

In some ways, The Look of Love echoes the dynamic that made the dashing Bacharach the face of the last great old-school songwriting partnership. Just like countless posthumous tributes to Bacharach celebrated his legacy by quoting Hal David’s lyrics, usually without credit, the MMDG’s production only references the composer.   

Iverson noted that in his autobiography, Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music, Bacharach didn’t seem particularly troubled by getting the lion’s share of the limelight. “He’s got the ultimate statement, ‘I never heard anyone leave the show whistling the lyrics,’ which is pretty cruel,” Iverson said. “But there’s some truth to that. Hal David is a really crucial part of what makes the classic songs so great. We’ve never talked about it, but I noticed that both Mark and I try to mention David when we do the press stuff. We’re keenly aware of his contributions. But you can’t fight city hall.”

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....