Mark Morris Pepperland
photo courtesy of Mark Morris Dance Group | Penn Live Arts

Mark Morris reinterprets classic Beatles album in Pepperland

The lights come up on the Mark Morris Dance Group’s production of Pepperland to reveal an animated vision of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. The dancers are costumed in brightly colored, tailored suits (designed by Elizabeth Kurtzman), and their eyes are hidden by dark sunglasses. Their angular, side-to-side maneuvers keep them flat to the audience, like a moving tableau. Humorously interpreting the song’s lyrics, the cast introduces the audience to an array of personalities, including Sonny Liston, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, and Oscar Wilde…and finally, The Beatles!

Pepperland premiered in Liverpool in 2017 at a 50th birthday celebration for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. It was performed for the first time in Philadelphia at the Zellerbach Theater last week (May 5-7). The score features seven Beatles songs, arranged by the composer Ethan Iverson, augmented by five original songs by Iverson. Strangely, in Pepperland, the tunes are stripped of their characteristic pop hooks, rendering a distant feeling from the familiar music. A seven-member band provides live accompaniment, including Iverson on the piano. The spare stage is decorated with crumpled-up mylar fabric (by set designer Johan Henckens), lit up in changing brilliant colors (by lighting designer Nick Kolin).

Morris’s choreography for Pepperland is clever, yet constrained. The dancers perform stylized pop dances from the 60s with crisp control. The abstract manner of both the music and dancing turns Pepperland into a formal exercise – interesting because Morris is undeniably an expert dance maker. The piece is a distinct contrast from Morris’ luminous L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1998), which the company recently revived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. L’Allegro, brimming with emotion and kinetic energy, is an exaltation of the human spirit. In Pepperland, however, Morris curiously squelches the heart and soul of the Beatles’ well-loved classic.

The full-length production unfolds as a series of vignettes, creating some memorable moments. There’s a “Lonely Hearts” pas de deux, performed three times in a row; first by two women, then by a woman and a man, and finally by two men. Morris has used this device frequently in his choreography over the years; here it’s touching to see how the sweeping lifts and turns are interpreted with different dynamics by each of the couples.

In “Within You Without You,” Noah Vinson sits cross-legged, meditating, while Dallas Murray portrays his dancing spirit – evoking the poses of Hindu deities. The other dancers walk around, going about their daily lives, unaware of the quest for enlightenment going on in their midst.

As “Penny Lane” starts out, things seem to be picking up: The dancers skip and wave their hands to a swinging melody played on the trombone by Ryan Keberle. One of them is lifted up and carried around as if driving a car. By the end of the episode, however, the driver is trapped in his car, menacingly encircled by the rest of the group.

The eerie sounds of an electronic theremin, played by Rob Schwimmer, accompany the wistful “Day in the Life” section. The ensemble mimes the song’s lyrics in unison: “Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged the comb across my head, etc.” Two men light-heartedly fly a woman around like an airplane, but there’s no escaping the sobering effects of reading today’s newspaper… “oh boy, the news was rather sad.”

The dancers return to marching stiffly in the final reprise of “Sgt. Pepper.” Loosening up, they attempt to lose themselves mindlessly in the movement. The mood, however, soon becomes frenzied, like a bad trip, and Pepperland ends on a dark note. The questions posed by this cerebral production linger. Is Morris commenting on the self-absorption of the 60s or on humanity in general? What to make of ourselves? Are we clueless and lost, or are we redeemed by our capacity for love when we’re at our best?

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