BWW Review: MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP: PEPPERLAND at The Kennedy Center
The knowledge that Mark Morris Dance Group's Pepperland is based on the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album sets the expectation for a bright, vivid performance that's just edging into trippy. For the most part, the show lives up to that expectation, but with some twists.
The ballet opens with the final chord played at the end of the album's reprise of the titular song. Weaving back into the song, the company begins grouped together and slowly winds out onto the full stage. Morris' choreography is fun, but the music is slower and jazzier than the version the audience is used to. From there, the company works through a series of rearranged songs from the album and interludes, composed by Ethan Iverson. Some of the songs are fun and quirky ("With a Little Help From my Friends" and "When I'm Sixty-Four" were particularly entertaining, with wonderful choreographic movements), some are sweet and beautiful ("Adagio" and "Allegro"), and some feel like full-scale productions, bursting with movement and spectacle despite the sparse stage and lack of props ("Penny Lane" and the reprise of "Sgt. Pepper"). And some, unfortunately, drag a little more ("Within You Without You" felt just a little too long).
Throughout the range of performances, the company keeps a lively energy, moving seamlessly from one song to the next. They flow together beautifully, and the synchronized group dances are only outdone by the staggered dances, which show off the company members' tremendous skill. The fact that they make complicated choreography look so simple and effortless is a testament to their abilities, as the entire performance is demandingly fast and complex. And yet, it's impossible to doubt that each member is clearly having the time of their lives on that stage.
Iverson also oversees the pit, which is radically different than expected for Beatles music, substituting the familiar guitars with a soprano saxophone, a trombone, and - as an acquiescence to the requests of the original commissioners to include an electric instrument - the theremin, which is the oldest electronic instrument. The resulting sound, especially when accompanied by soloist Clinton Curtis, is a slight departure from the typical Beatles tunes, but still keeps the spirit of their songs intact. Elizabeth Kurtzman's bright, early-sixties-influenced Mod-style outfits give the dancers enough room for movement while reinforcing the tones of the era, and Johan Henckens' set reflects Nick Kolin's lighting in a perfect, psychedelic balance to the cast's image.
Mark Morris Dance Group's Pepperland may not be a Beatles nostalgia-fest, but it's a crowd-pleasing evening of dance and color. When asked why some of the songs had a more meloncholy tone, Morris noted that "it's a sad fucking world." That may be true, but sometimes a little bit of dancing can alleviate that.
Mark Morris Dance Group's Pepperland plays at the Kennedy Center through November 16. The performance run time is approximately 75 minutes with no intermission. More information on tickets and performances can be found on the Kennedy Center website.