Days After His Death, a Dance Group Stages a Long-Planned Celebration of Burt Bacharach's Music

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Four dancers are on stage in orange against a backdrop of blue. The photo captures them all mid-motion, but all doing separate movements. One sits on the floor with their arm reaching into the air. Two in the middle are lunging to opposite sides, their torsos crossing with their backs to each other. In the background a fourth sways their arms above themselves.
The Mark Morris Dance Group performs The Look of Love at Santa Monica College. Photo courtesy of Mark Morris Dance Group.

The last time the Mark Morris Dance Group performed at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, the group had to cancel two of their three scheduled performances after some group members tested positive for COVID-19.

“That was very, very disheartening and very upsetting for everybody,” said Mark Morris, choreographer and artistic director for the group.

Though the news was difficult, it was in line with what many were experiencing at the time: plans and preparations torn asunder by the impact of a global pandemic.

Now, just over a year later, the group has returned to Zellerbach, but not everything else lost in that time has returned.

“It's also ghost towny here because it's still coronavirus, everybody,” Morris said. “So people are edgy and it's uncomfortable. And a lot of things have shut down and it's very difficult for everyone.”

The group is performing a three-night run of The Look of Love: An Evening of Dance to the Music of Burt Bacharach, which Morris choreographed in tribute to the famed composer.

Morris explained that the run would be longer, but the group is still conscious of COVID-19 and it hopes shorter runs can minimize risk.

A man sits in front of a piano in a navy suit. He is smiling and facing the camera.
Headshot of Burt Bacharach, courtesy of Mark Morris Dance Group.

Bacharach is considered by many to be one of the most influential composers of popular music in the 20th century, known widely for composing many iconic songs of the 60s and 70s, though he was still winning Grammy nominations as recently as last year.

Given the impressive career, including three Oscars and six Grammys, it was no surprise that Morris decided to arrange a show in tribute to Bacharach.

Bacharach saw a dress rehearsal of the show in October at the Broad Stage at Santa Monica College, where the group held their grand opening.

“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,” Bacharach is quoted as saying on the show’s website. “I’ve found an ideal collaborator in Mark Morris, whose brilliant choreography and deep musicality give songs new meaning and dimension through movement.”

Bacharach, with lyricist Hal David, created numerous hits, though many today may more closely associate those songs with the singers that popularized them.

“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” performed by BJ Thomas for the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, earned Bacharach, David and Thomas a Grammy.

Bacharach is also behind “I Say a Little Prayer,” popularized by icon Aretha Franklin and regarded as one of her best songs.

Both of those songs, along with other hits like “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” were first written with and recorded by Dionne Warwick in the latter half of the 1960s. It’s that period that Morris and the dance troupe are focusing on for this show.

But as the dance group was preparing for their three-night run in Berkeley, they were once again confronted with a historic moment: the passing of an industry giant. Bacharach died in his Los Angeles home on February 8 at the age of 94.

Five dancers stand in the same pose. They stand on one leg, their other leg is bent with their foot on their knee and one arm stretched out in front.
The Mark Morris Dance Group performs The Look of Love at Santa Monica College. Photo courtesy of Mark Morris Dance Group.

The performances at Zellerbach Hall mark the first since Bacharach’s passing, and have inevitably taken on new meaning.

“Mr. Bacharach's music has been running through the veins of American culture forever,” Morris said in a statement after learning the news. “His influence permeated popular music as much as his own music incorporated so many forms and styles.”

Paul McCartney, former member of the Beatles, tweeted “His songs were an inspiration to people like me. I met him on a couple of occasions and he was a very kind and talented man who will be missed by us all. His songs were distinctive and different from many others in the '60s and '70s.”

A person leans back in a chair, their arms outstretched to either side. Behind them, two other dancers are caught mid-motion as well, with one balancing on one leg with all other limbs outstretched and the other bending over, reaching one hand down and the other up.
The Mark Morris Dance Group performs The Look of Love at Santa Monica College. Photo courtesy of Mark Morris Dance Group.

Morris said he was glad Bacharach could see the homage to his legacy before his passing, and hopes others turn out to see it as well. But he reminds audiences that the show was created as a tribute to him in life, rather than a memorial made after his passing.

“It can be seen as nostalgia, but it's not my point. It's for now, it's for tonight or tomorrow, depending on when you're coming,” Morris said. “I hope it's not anything that anyone would expect, but it's very beautiful and it's very musically brilliant and Bacharach's very well represented by this. I can say that.”

Opening night at Zellerbach Hall on Friday was reportedly a success, with a full house and a standing ovation, according to the dance group's executive director Nancy Umanoff.

The third and final show in Berkeley will be Sunday, February 19.