Cal Performances and Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) go way back. The longtime Bay Area arts presenter first hosted the New York-based troupe in 1987, again in 1992, and starting in 1994, MMDG became a permanent fixture in the Cal Performances’ annual season. This past weekend’s Pepperland engagement at Zellerbach Hall has added another chapter to the ongoing MMDG/Cal Performances story. Created and choreographed by artistic director Mark Morris and an extensive team of collaborators, Pepperland both pays homage to The Beatles and is a celebration of their ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ album. The evening-length, full company work held its 2017 premiere in Liverpool, and is currently making the rounds on an extensive tour. As the work lands in theater after theater, I wonder what the responses will be. Judging from the number of folks standing at the end of the show, Cal Performances patrons were clearly entertained on Friday evening. I, too, wanted to like the piece, but it didn’t really resonate with me.
Pepperland did have a couple of notable triumphs, one being Elizabeth Kurtzman’s costume designs. The bold color palette was striking in its own right, but equally impressive was how the various pieces provided a sense of place. Hot pinks and canary yellows, large geometric prints, mod headbands, aviator sunglasses and clingy turtlenecks weren’t just reminiscent of the 1960s; they transported the stage to that decade. With its combination of nostalgia and freshness, Ethan Iverson’s score was another artistic win. Alongside his own original material, selections from the album were revisited and compositionally explored. Songs like ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, “Within You Without You’ and of course the title track, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’ An unexpected musical meter would be employed on these well-known tunes, different phrasing would pop up or new tempos would be introduced. I can’t say for sure but at one point, ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ sounded like it might have even been happening in retrograde. I thought it was fantastic – inventive, engaging and brilliantly interpreted by a small, but diverse, ensemble that included harpsichord and theremin. I’m curious if album purists felt the same way.
Pepperland’s mood and movement were another story. The piece was structured like a dance suite, with a dozen or so vignettes. With a few exceptions (a raucous, accumulative chorus line; a sprightly footwork chapter mid-way through; and ‘Penny Lane’ with its galloping kicks and hops), Pepperland hovered in the same chill mood and dynamic range for almost an entire hour. The result was a long run of scenes that looked very similar – trippy, slinky, social dancing from the album’s era. Plenty of relaxed spins, sustained lifts, twists, and lots and lots of walking. In fact, if I had to choose one move that was predominant in Pepperland, it was walking. Sometimes it was a military march, sometimes a saunter or occasionally, it would be more like a long, jazz glide. The walking was in patterns, in straight lines, performed by soloists and in groups. While walking and pedestrian movement can often be very powerful in performance, Pepperland was a sixty-minute dance, and there’s only so long that walking can hold my attention.
In previous works by the company, I’ve been impressed by Morris’ uncanny gift for marrying choreography and music together. How, with a great deal of wit, charm and skill, he creates a theatrical container where the pair can actively converse and reveal nuances in each other. I kept waiting for that to happen in Pepperland. Instead, the movement and score often met on surprisingly literal terms, which didn’t feel so overly interesting. Dancers leaned against each other in ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ and many lines from ‘A Day in the Life’ were acted out on stage in a combination of gesture and mime – combing hair, putting on a coat, riding on the bus and taking a cigarette break. Having said that, there was one captivating episode where arms circled and cascaded through the air while descending scalic motifs emanated from the pit. The resulting atmosphere was like a fountain or a waterfall. It was quite beautiful to behold, but at the same time, also emphasized that in the rest of Pepperland, the music/choreography connection wasn’t as strong.