Mark Morris’s Pepperland is Perhaps a ‘Dance to the Music of Time’ at Sadler’s Wells

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mark Morris Dance Group – Pepperland: Sadler’s Wells, London, 20.3.2019. (JO’D)

Mark Morris Dance Group’s Pepperland (c) Gareth Jones


Choreography – Mark Morris
Set design – Johan Henckens
Costume design – Elizabeth Kurtzman
Lighting design – 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

Musicians – Clinton Curtis, Colin Fowler, Jacob Garchik, Ethan Iverson, Brian Krock, Rob Schwimmer, George Shevtsov, Vinnie Sperrazza

Spiralling out, backwards, from the tightly-knit circle in which it first appears, the Mark Morris Dance Group gives the Pepperland audience sixty unbroken minutes of what is quite often a simple hopping, skipping, jumping kind of dance. ‘La danse de toujours’, but also perhaps, as was said of Anna Pavlova, ‘la danse de toujours comme jamais’. For when the dancers spiral in again, to close the piece, a very particular atmosphere of warmth and humanity and optimism lingers.

Created in 2017 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pepperland is a reinterpretation of seven songs from the album by jazz/rock composer Ethan Iverson, who adds music of his own inspired by the record. The music is performed live, by an ensemble of six, with vocals provided in well-modulated baritone and American accent by Clinton Curtis.

Dressed in costume designer Elizabeth Kurtzman’s meticulous version of 1960s fashions (suits and ties, sweaters and mini-skirts in bright, clashing colours; A-line coats in geometrically patterned black-and-white; sunglasses), the dancers perform against a background that changes from, say, purple to orange to green, according to the intended mood. Along the floor, beneath the wall of colour, faceted metallic surfaces reflect light in a way that suggests now a rocky coast, now the New York skyline.

‘All of my work,’ the New York-based Mark Morris recently told composer Michael Berkeley on BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions, ‘comes pretty directly from the force of music.’ For Pepperland the music is there in the orchestra pit. Its loud or high notes are met with correspondingly higher jumps, or lifts, in the dance. The relationship can sometimes be literal. To the line about saluting the Queen, in Penny Lane, the dancers salute.

If the movements in Mark Morris’s choreography are simple, they are put together in a complex way. From an introductory sequence that refers to Peter Blake’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover (the only part of the piece that falls a bit flat), to slow dancing by same-sex couples, to a frieze-like ‘walk’ with linked hands, to the smiling woman repeatedly, intriguingly carried through the air by two men, to the leitmotif of angled jump with one arm extended at shoulder height that appears to be a signifier of the decade in question: the sixty, seamless minutes of Pepperland are ‘crowded with incident’.

Like all work by by Mark Morris, perhaps, this is as much as anything else a ‘dance to the music of time’ with the circle as its base. On a large scale in the opening and closing spirals. On a small scale when one dancer spins, arms held close, as another revolves around him or her on a wider circumference, arms held like the wings of a plane or the blades of a helicopter: one human being taking the trouble, taking the time, to ‘showcase’ another. It was for this ‘human’ aspect that when the choreographer took his curtain call, dressed in rigorous black set off by a pink foulard, the applause seemed to come from the heart.

John O’Dwyer

For all Pepperland tour details click here.

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