May 12, 2019
Mark Morris and the Beatles sounds like an interesting combination, and it is… but in Pepperland, not the way one imagined. In 2017 the City of Liverpool commissioned MMDG to create an evening length work celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Sgt. Pepper album and Morris enlisted jazz composer Ethan Iverson to reinterpret six Beatles classics.
Using voice, theremin, soprano sax, trombone, piano keyboard and percussion, Iverson composed a “Pepper-inspired” original score that illuminates the LP’s broad-ranging roots (including vaudeville, classical, jazz, avant garde and blues). The result is a different musical experience that will disappoint if you are expecting to hear the Beatles themselves. Unfortunately, the sparse, brainy score inspired a lukewarm collection of group dances, duets, endless entrances and exits that, to quote the Beatles’ Nowhere Man, “doesn't have a point of view, knows not where he's going to…”
A promising beginning has a group of dancers in a clump, slowly walking backwards as if unraveling back into time. The costumes by Elizabeth Kurtman in bright, bold cartoonish color combinations (hot pink pants, yellow shoes, turquoise suits) recalled the LP cover and Morris’ Act I of The Hard Nut. Each dancer is introduced as a character from the 60s, or not: Marylin Monroe, Oscar Wilde, Shirley Temple, Ringo… This sets up the audience for some sort of narrative that never materializes.
Two men dance together, heterosexual couples dance together, two women dance together, they dance alone, and in unison, in an eclectic mix of ballet, pop, modern, and a hint of Indian dance. We see the Charleston, balletic lifts, yoga poses, neat patterns, and it’s all very sedate. Even the cool space-age set of aluminum rocks lining the back by Johan Henckens and excellent lighting by Nick Kollin couldn’t take the edge off dull.
Each section is well-crafted, but there is no moment where we feel a shot of adrenaline or much of anything. In one sequence the dancers execute a sideways “assemble” jump with both legs together in the air, and by doing it in different directions and in the same angle created a visually invigorating moment where everyone seems to fly, even though spatially constricted. But for the most part, the dancing seemed secondary to the dissonant extensions of the score, turning what could have been an exhilarating evening into one of polite dancing.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Nicole Duffy Robertson