Dance review: It was 51 years ago today

Mark Morris comes to town with 'Pepperland,' his take on 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band


I was working at SF Weekly in the mid-’90s when the Mark Morris Dance Group brought The Hard Nut, its take on The Nutcracker, to UC Berkeley. When the review came in from a freelance writer, the copy editor called me, the resident dance nerd, over to her desk. “The whole thing is about one part of the dance,” she said, pointing at her monitor. “Doesn’t that seem a little excessive?” I skimmed the piece, which focused on the Waltz of the Snowflakes. I hesitated, then said, “It does seem like a lot.”

But once I saw The Hard Nut, I got it. Mark Morris has many talents, not the least of which is forcing you to reconsider what you thought you knew—especially where music is concerned. The Hard Nut’s snow scene is a perfect microcosmic example: the waltz-y, pristine prettiness of the original becomes a joyful, snow-flinging swirl of movement in the remake. It might not be what you expected, but it feels right.

Mark Morris pays homage to The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” in “Pepperland.”/Photo by Gareth Jones

And so it is with Pepperland, the company’s witty and affectionate tribute to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, which White Bird, a co-commissioner of the piece, brought to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall February 21. Last year, the city of Liverpool commissioned Morris to create the work as part of the city’s 50th anniversary celebration of the album. But instead of using its music outright, Morris turned to former Bad Plus composer/pianist Ethan Iverson for a new score.

If you’re very attached to the original, Iverson’s incarnation can be hard going at first. But he stays true to the spirit of the album, alternating new arrangements of familiar tunes with original music that incorporates influences from the original: blues, vaudeville, pop, even baroque. He and his excellent ensemble play it live, with singer Clinton Curtis giving a formal reading of the lyrics, Colin Fowler drawing harpsichord sounds from his keyboard, and Rob Schwimmer jumping in on theremin, an inspired touch. It sounds in total like an acoustic version of its predecessor.

Pepperland’s dancing, too, evokes the album and the era without getting overly attached. Wearing costume designer Elizabeth Kurtzman ’60s-inspired pastiche of vivid colors and bold prints, the dancers don mirrored shades as they enter, one by one, to Curtis’ roll call of the figures pictured on the album’s cover (“May I introduce to you … Fred Astaire!” “May I introduce to you…a statue from John Lennon’s house!”) Social dances of the day, like the Hitchhike, bump into social dances from previous eras, including the can-can and the Charleston, all couched in an unfussy modern vocabulary, performed with an expansive, open-hearted quality.

Morris colors in the blanks Iverson leaves behind in “A Little Help from my Friends”: When the song asks, “Do you need anybody?” the dancers answer with steps where lyrics (“I just need someone to love”) used to be. And Morris capitalizes on Iverson’s off-kilter time signatures in “When I’m Sixty-Four”: “In between 6 and 4 is 5,” Iverson’s notes read. “All three (counts to the bar) are heard beneath the music-hall scuffle.” Translated into movement, the dancers, who enter the stage with great bounding jumps, become engaged in a woozy tug-of-war between slowed-down and speeded-up tempos.

Though it wasn’t actually on the album, “Penny Lane” also makes an appearance here with recurring movement phrases illustrating the song’s familiar scenes, such as the woman holding a coat over her head, dashing across the stage (the banker who never wears a mac in the pouring rain) or the cluster of dancers tilting their heads to the right (every head the barber has had the pleasure to know.)

Pepperland only lasts an hour, and I don’t think anyone would have minded if it went on a bit longer, but Morris, who joined the company onstage for a standing ovation, knows what he’s doing. The Summer of Love was another lifetime ago, you can’t help but think when you leave. We can’t get it back, but at least we still have a piece of it with us.

6 Responses.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    OAW – thanks for covering this

    Iverson & Morris’ playfully arty, over-the-top kitschiness caused me to realize just how kitschy the original album is – when released I’d never heard the word kitsch, and never gave it any thought till last night – thanks guys – what a hoot

    minor quibbles; would have preferred a top-shelf mezzo vocalist and violin instead of theremin

    and just for fun, back in the day, had the Beatles commissioned a dance, who would have gotten the call?

  2. clarities says:

    “When I’m Sixty-Four” had some intimations of Nancarrow-inspired innovation, but the rest felt pretty half-baked to me and my companion, both diehard Mark Morris fans. Morris has said there was a rush to complete the work in time, and it shows. Iverson’s efforts to bring new sounds and ideas to the original were welcome, but they ultimately don’t amount to much more than your average dubious art-pop ensemble all too common in NYC. The playful experimentation of the original fails to hold up in this recasting, even with Morris’ inspired irreverent approach to dance traditions. A surprisingly shallow and pretentious effort from this typically choreographer.

  3. clarities says:

    …from this typically genius choreographer, that is.

  4. Martha Ullman West says:

    Agree that this was not a work of genius, and that Morris has made a number of same in the past, Dido & Aeneas comes immediately to mind, along with L’Allegro etc. BUT, I enjoyed Pepperland a hell of a lot more than I expected to, the dancing itself was terrific, which I did expect, and the piece seldom descended into cuteness, which so easily could have happened. Heather’s review pretty much sums up my own reaction. Sometimes craft is enough.

  5. Bruce says:

    Saw the performance in Toronto and am commenting here to build upon the negative/reserved comments of the others. This is not worth going to if you are pondering buying tickets. I am a dance fan, a music fan and a Beatles fan and this is unfortunately a big fail. Poor choreography, jarring musical arrangements, uninspiring vocals! I’m being particularly blunt to contrast the small segment of our crowd who were the ‘Mark Morris can do no wrong’ camp and cheered loudly at the end. For a much better musical re-work of Sgt. Pepper check out the Art of Time Ensemble and for a much much better dance experience, wait for or seek out the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal!

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