With Pepperland, Mark Morris Dance Group have created a colourful, lively and dynamic tribute to the Beatles’ lauded 60s album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Created in 2017 for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pepperland is a vibrant and energetic homage that endeavours to capture the spirit, innovation, wit and audacity of the seminal album.
The New York-based Mark Morris Dance Group’s Pepperland arrived at Sadler’s Wells in London with all the colour, finesse and dynamism one might expect from a work honouring the semicentennial of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. However, Pepperland is far from a dull tribute act. While the musical and choreographic language cleverly reference the visual and sonic imagery of the original, Pepperland is a distinctly fresh reimagination of the stories told on Sgt. Pepper’s, invested with the idiosyncratic flair characteristic of Mark Morris’s choreographic style and the droll timbres and textures of composer Ethan Iverson’s musical arrangements and compositions.
Steeped in Elizabeth Kurtzman’s kaleidoscopic neon, mod-era costumes and Nick Kolin’s lighting design, the dancers perform a buoyant and jovial choreography, which merges various and disparate styles. With refined synchrony, pedestrian movements and physical theatre are contrasted with romantic waltzes, Charlestons with traditional balletic sequences. All are interspersed with gestures reminiscent of renaissance court dance and figure skating spins. While Morris makes an intelligent use of the depth and height of the performance space, with dancers often scattered along the stage and frequently bounding up and across, there is, if anything, often too much going on. Diversely animated ensemble numbers are spirited though often overpopulated, developing into chaotic scenes where the eye knows not where to look.
The eclecticism of the choreography is echoed in Iverson’s musical arrangements and original compositions. Bringing together the musical stylistic features derived from vaudeville, blues and baroque, he creates a complex though often confused sonic landscape. The harpsichord, Theremin and the classically trained baritone of Clinton Curtis often sit uncomfortably alongside one another. Indeed, both the visual and sonic presentation of Pepperland have the tendency to overwhelm and overdo, erring at times toward garish pastiche.
It is in the moments of restraint, as well as those instances where there is an unreserved commitment to the absurd, that Pepperland is at its most enticing. Nuanced duos and trios which spotlight witty choreographic exchanges and the technical prowess of individuals allow Pepperland to charm and delight. Meanwhile, a frenzied ensemble scene where Pepperland surrenders itself to the surreal manages to capture some of the ground-breaking imagination of Sgt. Pepper’s. In one such scene the dancers intertwine and intermingle to form complex patterns of jaunty movement, creating enchanting kaleidoscopic imagery that loses touch with reality. In these moments there is no trace of theatre, no gratuitous novelty, just exuberant, irresistible fantasy. Here Pepperland triumphs, serving a beguiling tribute to Sgt. Pepper at 50.
Mark Morris Dance Group’s Pepperland was brought to the UK by Dance Consortium and performed from 20-23 March at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. For more information including videos, images and interviews with the dancers and Mark Morris himself, see the show’s website. For Sadler’s Wells’ Spring / Summer 2019 programme, click here.