Mark Morris Dance Group
London, Sadler’s Wells
20 March 2019
I was born in the same month of the same year as Mark Morris, a fact that is relevant to this review only insofar as the mutuality of popular culture on our formative influences. Morris was born and raised in Seattle, a city where he saw The Beatles perform at the Coliseum, three days before his tenth birthday (which, by a notable coincidence, was the date of the band’s last-ever concert, in San Francisco’s Candlewick Park). I confess that Beatlemania passed me by. It’s only been in later life that I have come to appreciate their significance.
Pepperland was commissioned by the City of Liverpool as one of several new art events to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Almost two years’ after that premiere in The Beatles’ home city, this was the opening night of a six-week, twelve-city return tour to the UK and Ireland, organised by the resourceful team at Dance Consortium.
It is essentially a charming and innovative tribute, which references six songs by The Beatles (five from the album, plus Penny Lane, which came along a few months’ later), embedded within a bespoke, evocative score composed by Ethan Iverson. Morris insists on live music, and so the songs are not the original recordings but (except for a fast-paced orchestral interpretation of When I’m Sixty-Four) are sung live by the velveteen baritone voice of Clinton Curtis. Whilst admiring the decision to push the musical boundaries in a different direction from the original songs (you find yourself mentally singing along to well-known tunes, which then shift in unfamiliar directions), and enjoying much of the jazz in Iverson’s compositions, it is nonetheless very brass-heavy and that jarred at times with the wit and lyricism in Morris’ airy choreography, which seemed full square with the idealism of the mid-60s.
In the second sequence, Magna Carta, which followed the album’s title track, many of the people featured on the iconic album cover – the members of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club – were introduced, including Shirley Temple (redolently portrayed by Lauren Grant); Sonny Liston (briefly, heavyweight boxing champion in the 60s until dethroned by Cassius Clay, later to become Muhammed Ali); Laurel and Hardy; Karlheinz Stockhausen; Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe. Each was represented by a dancer with a gestural motif to fit the personality (oddly, I can’t remember what that was for Stockhausen)!
My two favourites amongst the thirteen musical episodes were a delightful rendition (in both song and dance) of Penny Lane and the Theremin undulations (played by Rob Schwimmer) in A Day in the Life; my least-liked segment (which coincides with the track on the album that I would generally skip), came with the Hindustani influences of George Harrison’s Within You, Without You; a dreary centrepiece of an otherwise engrossing hour-long work. There is no obvious climax to Pepperland, which morphs towards the 1970s in a finale that reprises the opening theme (very much in keeping with the concept album’s structure).
Johan Henckens’ quirky set was an abstract backdrop of light-catching mounds and peaks that suggested a distant city skyline; and Elizabeth Kurtzman’s colourful costumes were authentically stylish with black-and-white chevron patterns and checks, evocative of Mary Quant, and pastel-coloured suits with velvet colours. The visual appeal was emotionally strong and so suggestively resonant of the era that I could almost hear the late Kenneth Wolstenholme’s voice saying, “some people are on the pitch…they think it’s all over…”; much more in keeping with my memories of 1966!
Morris has added two performers to the line-up since the Liverpool premiere, which now stands at seventeen dancers, spreading the load for his continual torrent of flowing, elegant, musical choreography. Seeing this work so soon after the recent Richard Alston Dance Company show at the same theatre, reminded me of how similar their styles are; both inherently rooted in classical language, with off-kilter movements, light spins and jumps tempered by weightier accents. Here, Morris, moulds his style with the pop cultural and eastern influences of Sgt Pepper to create a memorable celebration of the album that manages to be both redolent of the 60s and remarkably modern. Even if I did not appreciate The Beatles, when I was ten, now I’m a lot nearer sixty-four, their significance is obvious and Morris and co have crafted an admirable and dignified tribute, which is born of intelligent observation rather than being in any way imitative.