“I am not necessarily the most devoted Beatles fan of all time,” admits choreographer Mark Morris. Yet, when two years ago, Morris received an invitation from Liverpool’s festival to create a dance to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ 1967 groundbreaking album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, he accepted the commission. One of the most musically inclined dance-makers in the business, Morris listened to the album and was “impressed by its avant-garde point of view.” So was born Pepperland – an hour-long dance-extravaganza, inspired and shaped by the album’s famous songs. The work premiered in May 2017 in Liverpool and toured ever since. In November, the Mark Morris Dance Group brought Pepperland to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater for a five-performance run.
For Morris, music is always a starting point for every dance he makes; and he is known for his penchant for live music. If you want to soak in the Beatles nostalgia and enjoy the familiar voices of John, Paul, George and Ringo – there is a chance that you will be disappointed in his peculiar Pepperland. The dance is accompanied by live performers – the musicians of the MMDG ensemble, with vocals provided by baritone Clinton Curtis.
The music of Pepperland is an original composition by Ethan Iverson, who, at Morris’s request, re-imagined and rearranged a handful of Beatles songs from the album (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, With a Little Help From My Friends, A Day in the Life, When I’m Sixty-Four, and Within You Without You) and added his own jazzy compositions (all of which allude to Bach rather than Beatles, thus their titles Adagio, Allegro, Scherzo.) The score utilizes saxophone, piano, trombone, as well as theremin – an electronic instrument that produces piercing, moaning sounds and is played without physical contact by the musician. So the entire musical accompaniment feels oddly unrock’n’roll; and Curtis’s singing, however clear and precise, gives the whole piece the kind of eerie, operatic feel that is a far cry from the bright and exuberant sound of the Fab Four.
Luckily, much of the exuberance and vibrancy in Pepperland is supplied by Morris’s ingenious and utterly entertaining choreography. Morris is at his best when he is in his humorous element. When he gets overly sentimental (fortunately, it doesn’t happen too often) – the whole thing takes a little dive.
The movement tapestry of Pepperland is dynamic and eclectic. The dancers march, skip, run and walk; they create witty patterns and formations; at times, they are being carried aloft like paper airplanes ready to be realized in the sky; they social-dance; and yes, they can-can.
Divided into 13 distinctive sections, each corresponding to a musical composition or an arrangement of the original Beatles song, Pepperland unfolds as a series of sly mini-vignettes, where the virtuosity and the vernacular go hand in hand.
The piece begins and ends with the same visually striking image: the dancers are assembled centerstage in a tight group, which then slowly unfurls like a blossoming flower, with everyone seemingly in disarray, walking backward in strict circles – a rare union of harmony and disorder. In the following number, Magna Carta, the cast is introduced one by one, in comical fashion, as personages from Peter Blake’s album cover: Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe, Oscar Wilde, Shirley Temple and Albert Einstein among the others. In one of the most thrilling sections, set to When I’m Sixty-Four, the dancers create a perfectly synchronized high-kicking line only to find themselves getting hilariously out of sync. In Penny Lane (the song didn’t make it to the album but was initially intended for it), the ensemble gleefully animates the lyrics and we thoroughly admire Morris’s clever details to illustrate the song’s catchy words.
Morris’s choreography inspires a host of moods and feelings, mostly cheerful and upbeat; yet the theme of “lonely hearts” permeates the work from start to finish, infusing the overall atmosphere with a touch of melancholy.
Costume designer Elizabeth Kurtzman saturated this Pepperland with vivid and vibrant colors, outfitting the dancers in a super chic attire: miniskirts, shirts, jackets and pants, all hinting to the 1960s mod fashion. Set designer Johan Henckens dotted the stage with piles of what looked like crumpled tinfoil. These sparkling heaps alluded to sunlit mountain tops thanks to the gorgeous lighting created by Nick Kolin.
The Morris troupe was brilliant throughout, performing with athleticism, virtuosity and a perfect combination of elegance and swagger. If the music might give some pause for thought, it was the dancers that looked totally at home in this supercharged, chaotic, yet ultimately irresistible Pepperland.