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Pepperland

Choreography Mark Morris, music Ethan Iverson after the Beatles
Mark Morris Dance Group
Sadler’s Wells
to

Pepperland. Wonderland. Mark Morris has drunk his fill of Sergeant Pepper’s ‘Lewis Carroll’ tonic and there’s nothing ‘lonely hearts’ about Pepperland, it’s more “we hope you enjoy the show”. Vaudeville, cabaret, Tiller Girls, Blackpool Winter Gardens, with a blend of the swinging London of Carnaby Street and the sunny dazzle of 1967 hippy San Francisco. And Pan’s People on Top of the Pops.

The Beatles’ concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and its Peter Blake / Jann Haworth cover (names—Shirley Temple, Sonny Liston, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Marilyn Monroe, Oscar Wilde, Albert Einstein, Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire—shouted out and posed in character), are celebrated (Pepperland premièred 2017 in Liverpool for the album’s 50-year celebrations) by one of America’s most witty, musical and exuberant choreographers. Did you know there are some seventy ‘celebrities’ on the album cover?

Music always comes first for Morris and to this end he had his former musical director, Ethan Iverson, rearrange some of the Beatles’ songs as well as provide his own compositions. Another concept album… Paul McCartney was influenced by the Beach Boys, John Cage and Stockhausen amongst others; George Harrison by Indian music. And it’s all referenced, quoted and extemporized.

There is much of interest going on in Iverson’s avant-garde, kind of blue jazzy score, played by a six-man band on saxophone, trombone, theremin, percussion, piano (Iverson himself) and keyboard. And there’s also lovely rich baritone Clinton Curtis. Four rows away, and my attention keeps drifting to the band, the bouncy dancing and eyeball-sizzling colours on the stage notwithstanding.

Elizabeth Kurtzman’s costumes of clashing pigments, pink on yellow / orange on purple, mini-dresses, pop-art black and white coats, and cool sunglasses (and do they need these), allude no doubt to the album’s sleeve and the daring innovations of the sixties (when the dull fifties were replaced by a relaxation in style, Mary Quant raised the hemlines, and so on), but they make me think of Michael Craig-Martin and David Hockney’s use of colour.

Deflated silver balloons (Johan Henckens’s set design takes my mind to Merce Cunningham’s RainForest with its Andy Warhol helium-filled silver pillows) graze the floor against a backcloth, which Nick Kolin’s ever-changing lighting colour washes modify for each musical narrative or mood.

The psychedelia of the Beatles’ experimentation not only with sound but also mind-altering substances is visible in the trippy dances, the meditation poses, and a "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" girl flown like a plane between two boys—though the song does not figure in the evening’s score.

"With a Little Help from My Friends", "When I’m Sixty-Four", "Within You Without You" (isn’t dance all “about the space between us”?), "Penny Lane" (though strictly this was not included in the album, but released as a single, it was originally intended for it), "A Day in the Life" do figure, and of course, the "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" refrain bookends the uninterrupted hour-long entertainment. The rest is Iverson.

Morris’s signature style, full of the joys of music, full of hops, jumps, skips, spins, twists and turns, runs and casual walks, looks relaxed, easy, a bit corny (in a good way) and sometimes literal in its visualisation of the lyrics. But, it’s fun, and the audience loves it, though I notice the musicians get the larger share of the applause.

The mop-haired foursome is chased by screaming girls. Seventeen dancers, jaunty happy ‘friends’, paint the stage with their never-still bodies, tell stories, visit the barber, smooch, emote, form a roundabout, race from one end of the stage to the other in waves of energy and ‘love, love, love’, someone ‘drives’ a car, there’s marching, but above all there’s a sense of letting one’s hair down. And, they provide vocal backing to the sad "A Day in the Life". Read the lyrics and you can imagine the rest.

Mark Morris Dance Group gives an innocence and freshness to one of the best-selling albums of all time at its release, controversial and experimental. An iconic studio album that was not intended for live performance by the Beatles has been revived and revivified through rose-coloured spectacles. ‘We hope you enjoyed the show”, “sorry it’s time to go”… like good partygoers they do not outstay their welcome.

Check them out on tour to Bradford, Birmingham, Salford, Edinburgh, Canterbury, Cardiff, Plymouth, Southampton, Norwich, Newcastle and Dublin.

Vera Liber