Updated: May 30, 2021
Mark Morris, Ethan Iverson
Mark Morris Dance Group
29 Mar 2019 - 30 March 2019; 1hr 5min, no interval
I read the news today – and 'oh boy' sounds like an understatement. So there’s still a lot about the Sgt Pepper album that seems bang up to date (though by now there are probably far more than 4,000 potholes in Blackburn, Lancashire)...
Mark Morris’s Pepperland is a short burst of glorious fantasy that captures the spirit of that classic album in design and dance. At some points it literally brings it to life – the roll-call of the characters imaged on the sleeve for instance, and the narrative version of Penny Lane. At others it’s more an evocation of the primary colours of that sleeve, the everyday dress styles of the mid-sixties, the dance styles of the period and the world of analogue, experimentation, innocence, optimism and uninhibitedness.
But it is also very selective. Penny Lane wasn’t on the album actually (though could have been) – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, She’s Leaving Home, For the Benefit of Mr Kite and Lovely Rita, to name some of my favourites, are all left out.
Instead the show’s score is an alternation, almost, of arrangements of the title song and of With a Little Help from my Friends, When I’m Sixty Four, Within You Without You, Penny Lane and A Day in the Life, with newly-composed tracks by Ethan Iverson – each inspired by or related to one of the Beatles' numbers.
I think the score itself could be a classic. The re-arrangements pay skilful tribute to the sound world and imaginations of George Martin, McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starr, and the new compositions are creations in their own right and sometimes so fascinating you want to just listen and come back to the dancing another time. They are played live by a brilliant little ensemble of sax, trombone, theremin, piano, electronic keyboard and percussion, with Clinton Curtis coolly delivering the Beatle track vocals.
I love the way the vocalist is literally singing out of key at the start of When I’m Sixty Four (and the rhythmic games that follow), and there's enough pure counterpoint to make any classicalist happy as a sandboy.
But it is also a dance show, shot through with imagery that makes this member of the Sixties generation feel they’re back again: simple, angular, quirky and above all cheerful. Dreaming and wishing seemed to be all you needed then (and love, of course - easy). Turning someone on could mean what you wanted it to mean, so let's all sit and contemplate nirvana.
The sheer precision of the ensemble dancing is almost art concealed by art, but it's key to the whole thing and its impact.
They say that if you were really there in the Sixties you won’t remember anyway. This is the next best thing.