Choreography: Mark Morris
Music: The Beatles and Ethan Iverson
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Pepperlandby American dance legend Mark Morris celebrates the landmark 1967 album by The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Pepperlandpremiered at the Sgt Pepper at 50Festival in Liverpool in 2017 at the Royal Court. Pepperland is now on a major UK tour supported by Dance Consortium, although the production has been supported by a large number of partner organisations in the US and UK.
Pepperlandtakes the Sgt Pepper album as a musical and visual starting point and views it through a broader 60s kaleidoscope lens with a distinctly American viewpoint. The show has a colourful 1960s look that takes cues from Peter Blake’s iconic British pop art cover, thanks to Elizabeth Kurtzman’s primary colour-block and graphic black and white costumes that reference mod looks and 60s fashions with an American 60s sportswear cool couture vibe. Johan Henckens’ set design with its surreal low hills of crumpled silver foil nods to Warhol and Merce Cunningham and Nick Kolin’s lighting matches Kurtzman’s use of bright colour to tie the whole thing together visually with the album. The entire show has a bright and colourfully-distinctive look that evokes a vivid impression of the mid-1960s.
Where Pepperlandbecomes a little more surreal is the soundtrack. Ethan Iverson is a former member of cult Minneapolis jazz trio The Bad Plus and a regular collaborator with Mark Morris. Iverson has taken essentially five songs from Sgt Pepper– the title track, With A Little Help From My Friends, When I’m Sixty-Four, Within You Without You and A Day In The Life – added Penny Lane, which apparently was intended for the album, and then provided a number of linking pieces that bridge those choices. The result really does not sound like The Beatles as it is all filtered through a predominantly jazz delivery and the music played live by the MMDG Music Ensemble (including Iverson) is delivered by a line-up disconnected from even The Beatles experimental but classic two guitars, bass, drums format: soprano sax, trombone, Theremin, piano and other keyboards and percussion. Vocals are smoothly delivered by Clinton Curtis, who has a warm rich appealing voice but even singing The Beatles most recognisable songs in this jazz style the overall effect is reminiscent of a thoughtful Billy Joel.
The band can certainly play but the arrangements give the music a disorientating, slightly surreal feel with Iverson drawing out all the classical, brass band, music hall and vaudeville notes that are embedded within The Beatles more familiar pop. It is as if hearing them for the first time, which is a sensation that is both refreshing and unnerving, especially when When I’m Sixty-Four is given a complex and shifting time signature that unsettles and bizarre choreography to match. Sometimes you just want to hear something more ‘Beatles’: A Day In The Life, for example, becomes almost entirely a mournful and queasy Theremin (Rob Schwimmer) nocturne.
Where Pepperland really becomes tricky is the choreography. The complete show is delivered in a fast-paced jazz ballet style and the choreography somehow manages to be both overly literal – they literally mime the action to ‘Penny Lane’ down to the fireman cleaning his fire engine – and yet bafflingly hard to follow: abstract and yet simplistic. The show also references groovy 60s social dances but often stripped back to the basic movements. There are lots of straight and semaphore arms, skips and changes of tempo.
Thinking after the show, there are elements that recall the more surreal elements of The Beatles’ films and other 60s movies such as Oh What a Lovely War. One needs to be reminded more than fifty years on that Sgt Pepper is a portrait of The Beatles themselves and England at that time – childhood, family, eccentricity, Liverpool, light entertainment still rooted in music hall, a barely post-war Britain. But these thoughts come after. During the show Pepperland is rather bewildering, oddly two-dimensional and seemingly-rooted in an American dance tradition and style of delivery – relentlessly jolly but neutral – that seems occasionally hopelessly-dated and obtusely so. But Morris’s musicality is undeniable.
Morris overuses recurring motifs – the image of the four in a line, the seated Buddha the coded significance of sunglasses and certain moves such as holding dancers aloft as if driving cars or carried arms aloft as if flying. This is a large dance cast – most of them Morris stalwarts – and he is very fond of bringing them on in lines and small groups and sending them off again and having dancers do the same moves facing different directions. But he also manages to give all his dancers solo elements and there are moments that are well-constructed and tremendous fun. ‘Within You Without You’ is pleasing in its use of pattern and mood, for example. Morris also mixes the sexes up in a way that brings modernity and colour. But overall Pepperland feels sanitised, filtered, and lacks sass, sexiness, passion, grit, velocity and any sense of the revolution or counter-culture it marked the dawn of. It is all too static and stylised.
Pepperland is deeply strange. One wonders why in 2019 you are being fed this odd American view of British culture that is now more than fifty years in the past. Maybe this is the perfect piece of dance theatre for a Britain that appears to be clinging to the past, terrified of the future and baffled by the present. Maybe this is reflected in the age and whiteness of the audience. Maybe this what ‘we’ want. But is it what we need?
Reviewed 29 March 2019 | Image: Contributed