, ,

Mark Morris Dance Group


Penn Live Arts-Annenberg Center


May 6-8, 2022


Pepper land dress rehearsal and press night. Images by Gareth Jones

~Pepperland cast May 2022

Karlie Budge, Domingo Estrada, Jr., Lesley Garrison, Sarah Haarmann, Courtney Lopes, Aaron Loux,
Taína Lyons, Matthew McLaughlin, Dallas McMurray, Brandon Randolph, Nicole Sabella, Christina Sahaida,
Billy Smith, Noah Vinson, Malik Q. Williams

I’d Love to Turn You On…

 Choreographer Mark Morris’ dance animation of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with a half a dozen of its songs with re-imagined by composer-pianist Ethan Iverson, with some original orchestral interludes conjuring the fantasia of Pepperland.

Sgt. Pepper was lushly produced by George Martin with symphonic fusion, introduced the pop charts to edgy ‘concept’ album and made the Beatles bigger rockstars than they already were. Morris debuted his dance production in Liverpool in 2017 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the album’s release.

If Penny Lane was McCartney’s pop music confection, A Day in the Life was a chilling view of mundane British life, with themes of self-destruction and the allure of drugs and sex and a line that became lore about McCartney rumored death. That symphonic fade at the end of the album is the note that starts Morris’ freewheeling ode to the album and the era.

The dancers momentarily pose as the stars on the album cover from- Oscar Wilde, Marilyn Monroe, Fred Astaire, Sonny Liston, Albert Einstein, et. al. – Costumes by Elizabeth Kurtzman the dancers all dressed in vivid pinks, purple, yellow, green suits, and mod era skirts go with the choreographic flow.

Morris is expected to be unexpected and Pepperland’s cast of 14 dancers’ possess radiant esprit and infectious energy that win us over even through some static sections, for all around funsies. Except for a few audience members who bolted after a few numbers on this rainy night in Philadelphia, this audience loved it.

Morris’ builds a vibrant dance canvas of petit jetes and flattened out pas de bourrée (which echo Nijinsky’s Faun tableau-choreo) and sections peppered with flashes of 60s dances including the frug, pony and boogaloo and even a breakout Charleston rag.

Ringo’s hit ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ (wonderfully sung by Clinton Curtis) leads into the mise-en-scenes depicting ‘the Lonely Hearts Club’ singles hookups of a bygone era, and in the age of Tinder/Grindr apps, Morris choreographs straight and same-sex couples’ dances. Charmingly intimate, but a bit choreographically anemic in their combined effect. It seemed like a missed opportunity for either passion or comedy. Or better yet both.

Musically and choreographically, ‘Within You and Without You’ George Harrison’s rock meditation is truly inspired, with Morris’ lacing in classical Indian dance phrases and interfaith universality of cosmic connections. Groovy would be the word.

With the reprise of Sgt. Pepper at the end, is busted open musically with a Bourbon St. trombone lead by Sam Newsome, soprano sax, Ryan Keberle, trombone and Vinnie Sperrazza, percussion turns into a Bourbon St. parade, with the dancers linked and lurching over the stage like soused zombies.

‘Penny Lane‘ was slated for Sgt. Pepper but was actually released as single and was, as flimsy as it was, a hit. Pianist Iverson turns a few bars from Penny Lane into a Bachesque allegro lead in, then Curtis belts out the song’s quaint descriptive lyrics about the ‘Pretty nurses are selling poppies/though she feels she is in a play/she is anyway/A barber shaves another customer/when the fireman rushes in from the pouring rain/ very strange. Morris makes this droll lyrical narrative into a simpleton panto(dance)mime of said action.

In contrast, the simplicity of kick line Morris concocts for ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ is truly inspired, as Iverson scrambles the beat and dancers are warped out of count signatures- (explained in the program-(the between 6 & 4 is 5. under the music-hall scuffle). and despite that extra piece of the puzzle, this is Morris at his most inventive and for the dancers, a whole article could be written about their quicksilver precision. It is Morris at his best, a warm and witty dance dervish par excellence.

The startling ‘A Day in a Life’ the most compelling track musically, with its haunting lead vocal by Lennon, is the finale of Pepperland. In the 60s, guitarist jazz great Wes Montgomery turned it into a smoldering jazz jam and Iverson builds it into an elegiac anthem of a mythical cultural era.

His somber piano melody  in duet with Rob Schwimmer’s theremin’s time-bending effects that lead into the Clinton Curtis’ vocal and then the dancers singing its ethereal chorale, indeed, was such a….. contact high….. circa ’67…8…9. I cried.