Kicking off Liverpool’s huge Beatles celebration, Mark Morris Dance Group’s Pepperland is both sunny and unpredictable. For all its pop 1960s costumes and Lennon-McCartney numbers, it refuses to be a nostalgic romp.
The Sgt Pepper at 50 season marks the anniversary of The Beatles’ most famous album, with 13 major arts commissions and events responding to the 13 tracks. Morris’s Pepperland is positioned as the overture; a big, confident blast of colour and sound.
Morris, one of the most influential choreographers of his generation, has always been loved for his response to music. Since emerging in the 1980s, he’s made dances to everything from baroque opera to country and western. For his Beatles dance, he commissioned a new score from Ethan Iverson, who alternates new music and his own arrangements of seven songs.
Iverson’s musical forces put the most familiar numbers into strange perspectives. Though the dancers act out the lyrics of “A Day in the Life”, we don’t actually hear them: Iverson gives the vocal line to the theramin, that most sci-fi-sounding of instruments. He and Morris respond to the jauntiness of “When I’m Sixty-Four” while turning it upside down. Dancers jump into position for a chorus line – but even as the audience tries to clap along, the accompaniment sidles off into a different rhythm. Finally, onstage dancers clap a firm, consistent beat, giving the perky chorus something to hang on to.
Some jokes pay tribute to other aspects of the album. In the opening number, singer Clinton Curtis names some of the figures on Peter Blake’s famous cover: “Introducing Shirley Temple! Introducing a statue from John Lennon’s house!” Each time, a dancer comes on, puts on dark glasses and strikes a pose. It frames the 15 dancers as individuals and as part of an imagined group.
While responding to each song, Morris builds larger patterns that develop across the whole work. In one early number, couples slow dance or step into the spotlight for bigger moves. (As ever with Morris, the couples aren’t all heterosexual.) One slow, supported turn keeps coming back, grander and more tender each time.
In “Within You Without You”, Domingo Estrada Jr turns Lauren Grant, then circles her as she spins by herself. Support becomes independence – then goes beyond that, too, with Grant lifted and turned by several dancers, spinning and soaring in a joyful image of transcendence. Pepperland has both idealism and community at its heart.
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