DANCE - CONTEMPORARY
Click Here for More Articles on DANCE - CONTEMPORARY

BWW Review: Mark Morris' PEPPERLAND at BAM Brings Camp and Playfulness to The Beatles' Iconic Album

BWW Review: Mark Morris' PEPPERLAND at BAM Brings Camp and Playfulness to The Beatles' Iconic Album

Well before The Met Gala's kitschy theme for 2019 inspired the likes of Lady Gaga, Jordan Roth and countess celebrities to strut their most outrageous stuff down the pink carpet, Mark Morris has been the reigning King of Camp in choreography, celebrating this gleeful genre in company classics such as The Hard Nut. This spring he elevated the playful style integrated with expressive movement in Pepperland, an exuberant homage to the 1960s counterculture and The Beatles' seminal 1967 concept album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The work, initially commissioned at the request of the City of Liverpool to celebrate the renowned album's 50th anniversary in 2017, has finally arrived in New York City - like a long-awaited tour of a cherished rock group - fittingly at Mark Morris Dance Group's American home base of BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. But this is no mere jukebox dance musical homage - rather, it is an entirely original work that duly honors the source material even further by modernizing and enhancing it, updating the undisputed pop music masterpiece and imbuing it with a fresh perspective. And naturally, Morris - a very collaborative choreographer - had a little help from his friends.

For starters, there can be no jukebox because there is no "box" - nothing is recorded, as per usual with Morris' adoration and profound understanding of musicality in movement, there is a live band. Having live musicians and a vocalist present brought another level of enchantment and honor to the Fab Four's famous album that no recording, however faithful, could ever do justice to. Indeed, the small musical ensemble resonated with the vastness of a full orchestra but retained the intimacy of an small band, thanks to the silken envelopment of Clinton Curtis' richly resonant vocals; the resplendent brazenness of the brass section with Sam Newsome on soprano sax and Jacob Garchik on trombone; Rob Schwimmer's weird and otherworldly elements with his Theremin (which was particularly power in the rare solo pieces); Vinnie Sperrazza on percussion; Colin Fowler on keyboard and the musical arranger and co-composer Ethan Iverson (founding member of the avant-garde, game-changing jazz/rock collective, The Bad Plus) on piano.

Iverson interspersed his original jazz-infused compositions with imaginative arrangements of the epochal album's most beloved tracks, as well as a few other Beatles favorites like "Penny Lane". Merge all of those aspects with acid-bright bubblegum-pop color schemes and 1960s London fashions of Carnaby Street, exquisitely imagined by Elizabeth Kurtzman's candy shoppe costumes teamed with Nick Kolin's sunny or somber, golden and multi-colored liquid lighting washes, and the simple, yet effective setting by Johan Henckens, the stage was set for some serious fun to be had by all!

With the sights and sounds so marvelously assembled, it was time to dance! There are few interpretations of iconic rockstar's music that can actually add to and uplift the original work in a exciting new ways that the artist themselves haven't already explored to perfection. Most fall short and end up in the category of the aforementioned jukebox production or tribute band-type of imitation, a poor shadow of the authentic glory of the creator's first intention. Dance, however, is a more flexible medium and, by virtue of being a more abstract art form, it can actually enhance and give new dimensionality and expressions to a work of art, especially the musical kind. Some notable examples that come to mind are Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out - athletic and emotive dances set to Billy Joel's classic songs - and Star Dust, Complexions Contemporary Ballet's vision of David Bowie's magical musical realms told through movement. Mark Morris Dance Group's Pepperland can now be added to that list. And, like the others mentioned, that is largely because Morris' dance vocabulary when fused with his unique stylings, love for all things camp and kitsch as well as his company's communal, familial feeling, teamed with their sense of playfulness and exuberant joy that makes MMDG the perfect people to embody the quintessential spirit of the '60s that The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper helped define. Watching Pepperland is akin to entering a utopia, perhaps from a (good) acid trip or a dream or maybe a distant reality that those present in the counterculture movement of the era truly believed could be manifested (and maybe it was in glittering, ephemeral moments).

As is one of Mark Morris Dance Group's signatures, there was a lot of dynamic partnering of all sorts: male/male, male/female, female/female and male led by female or vice versa. In this euphoric place, like the world of Morris' creations in general, gender and sexuality does not matter, everything is fluid. There is almost an innocence and sense of purity, like teenagers in love, kids on a playground or Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before that fateful apple left them feeling shameful and exposed. Pepperland feels unabashedly and proudly queer, but not fussy, pushy or in your face about it, just natural. It simply is the way it is in this utopia. And while such expressions have become more common and could almost be considered "on trend", it is important to remember that Mark Morris was doing this kind of thing since the beginning and he and his dancers do it seamlessly as part of their truth and company's core values.

The variety of the score, Iverson's eclectic originals and The Beatles' familiar songs gave the company plenty to explore physically. Described as one of the first art rock LP's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band fused numerous styles of more traditional, straightforward pop and rock tunes with Broadway-style vaudevillian elements, big band brass, classical orchestrations, avant-garde jazz and even some exotic Eastern sounds. Iverson's contributions are equally complex, sophisticated and varied, so too are the gestures and emotions that accompany them. For Morris' performers are actors too, and their moods and movements are contrasted from gleeful (the title song and "With A Little Help From My Friends") reflective and spiritual ("Within You and Without You") and even darkness and gloom (some of Iverson's compositions and "A Day in the Life"). On the brighter side of things, "Penny Lane" was a charming choice and gave one the feeling they'd been whisked away to a little slice of local English life. In Iverson's pieces, there was even some spirited harpsichord sounds adding a dash of Baroque elegance (music Mark Morris loves to choreograph to) and further spicing up the otherwise beatific soundtrack.

The choreography was Morris' usual fare of a more Paul Taylor-based style modern, contemporary and balletic dance (referenced as such because it is performative dance, purposely played to please and enchant the audience, rather than internal expressions moving outward like Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham). But unlike Taylor, the dancers do not whip themselves into a frenzy, but appear effortless like children at play, even when executing complex movements and strenuous physical feats. They do so with ease and an attitude of fun and relaxation, as if drinking in a summer day while skipping through a field. To that, there is a lot of skipping, hand holding and highly-angular walking with the performers linked together like a daisy-chain. The many twirls were evocative of pinwheels being turned in the breeze and the multiple group numbers - with the performers moving both in tandem and then alternatingly out of sync with one another - felt like a kaleidoscope constantly being twisted to reveal new colors and patterns. In the final moment of the bookended starting and finishing song "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band", the dancers formed a circular shape and all fell down like the child's game "Ring Around the Rosie", except for two women, locked in a kiss.

But as per usual with a MMDG production, the real last dance was saved for the bows, when the choreographer himself struts onstage with a dramatic swish of his signature scarf to roaring applause. Pepperland may very well be the most camp and queer show this spring (outside of the Met Gala), and the King of Kitsch wears his crown of achievement for a homage well done - his way - with pride and glory.

BWW Review: Mark Morris' PEPPERLAND at BAM Brings Camp and Playfulness to The Beatles' Iconic Album
The Mark Morris Dance Group performs "Pepperland" at BAM Opera House on May 8, 2019. Music by The Beatles and Ethan Iverson Music arrangements by Ethan Iverson Set design by Johan Henckens Costume design by Elizabeth Kurtzman Lighting design by Nick Kolin Dancers: MICA BERNAS SAM BLACK KARLIE BUDGE* Brandon Cournay JOHN EIRICH DOMINGO ESTRADA, JR. LESLEY GARRISON LAUREN GRANT SARAH HAARMANN DEEPA LIEGEL* AARON LOUX LAUREL LYNCH DALLAS McMURRAY MINGA PRATHER* BRANDON RANDOLPH NICOLE SABELLA CHRISTINA SAHAIDA Billy Smith NOAH VINSON Credit: Stephanie Berger.

BWW Review: Mark Morris' PEPPERLAND at BAM Brings Camp and Playfulness to The Beatles' Iconic Album
The Mark Morris Dance Group performs "Pepperland" at BAM Opera House on May 8, 2019. Music by The Beatles and Ethan Iverson Music arrangements by Ethan Iverson Set design by Johan Henckens Costume design by Elizabeth Kurtzman Lighting design by Nick Kolin Dancers: DALLAS McMURRAY, LAUREN GRANT & SAM BLACK. Credit: Stephanie Berger.

BWW Review: Mark Morris' PEPPERLAND at BAM Brings Camp and Playfulness to The Beatles' Iconic Album
The Mark Morris Dance Group performs "Pepperland" at BAM Opera House on May 8, 2019. Music by The Beatles and Ethan Iverson Music arrangements by Ethan Iverson Set design by Johan Henckens Costume design by Elizabeth Kurtzman Lighting design by Nick Kolin Dancers: LESLEY GARRISON & DALLAS McMURRAY. Credit: Stephanie Berger.

BWW Review: Mark Morris' PEPPERLAND at BAM Brings Camp and Playfulness to The Beatles' Iconic Album
The Mark Morris Dance Group performs "Pepperland" at BAM Opera House on May 8, 2019. Music by The Beatles and Ethan Iverson Music arrangements by Ethan Iverson Set design by Johan Henckens Costume design by Elizabeth Kurtzman Lighting design by Nick Kolin Dancers: MICA BERNAS SAM BLACK KARLIE BUDGE* Brandon Cournay JOHN EIRICH DOMINGO ESTRADA, JR. LESLEY GARRISON LAUREN GRANT SARAH HAARMANN DEEPA LIEGEL* AARON LOUX LAUREL LYNCH DALLAS McMURRAY MINGA PRATHER* BRANDON RANDOLPH NICOLE SABELLA CHRISTINA SAHAIDA Billy Smith NOAH VINSON Credit: Stephanie Berger.



Related Articles

From This Author Cindy Sibilsky

Before you go...

Never Miss a Story
Like Us On Facebook
Follow Us On Twitter
Follow Us On Instagram instagram
   
popup