Pepperland @ Festival Theatre

Image contribution:
Gareth Jones

Artistic Director: Mark Morris

Music: Original songs by The Beatles, composition by Ethan Iverson

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band ends just where Pepperland begins with that notoriously extended chord. To start – if your attendance this evening hopes for a juke-box style musical with dance, then best not hold your breath. Mark Morris Dance Group brings us Pepperland, a hyper-stylised piece of movement to an original score stitched with classics from The Beatles album.

There’s an effervescence of nostalgia riddled throughout the production. It’s a love letter of sorts, one certainly written on music sheets than paper. Regularly collaborating with Mark Morris is composer Ethan Iverson. Pepperland sees more than trivial flushing out of The Beatles noted hits. Iverson instead tethers these numbers together with his inherent jazz roots. What happens is a concoction which perks the ears with some familiarity but raises the eyebrows at distortion. Helping to release these furled brows are the band, vastly talented with a distinctive, almost New Orleans twist on delivery.

What seems to be communicated from Morris and Iverson is a multitude of issues, particularly connection and solitude in a digital society. These experimental notions stem more from the original pieces which whilst commendable, makes us question ‘Why Sgt. Pepper’? As a cultural piece, it is evocative of the period it was created (the sixties) and whilst extensively odd the album was grounded in post-war Liverpool, community and elements of family.

Even as we donned our flairs entering a Yellow Submarine, we had a clearer sense of what was going on. To describe Pepperland as eccentrically perplexing would not only be a compliment to Morris but be accurate. It will take time to accustom yourself to the goings on, gradually building up to have a notion of what is intended. It is a tribute to The Beatles, but at the same time as a separate piece, it’s unsure if it wants to be experimental in its conception or straight forward. Penny Lane, for example, is crafted with sublime movements, but it’s a piece of straight forward narrative – the only number performed this way.

Now – speaking of dancing. There are elements of groove, of swinging 60s and disco diving 70s but for the most part, Morris stamps his own brand on the performers. Usually entering the stage in groups to perform a small stint, replaced by a group of the same size to perform the same stint. Its repetition at first works when large lines develop, but after half an hour, grows stale. The dancers have little to work with in the way of passion or emotional fluidity.

When they are at their strongest and audience warming are the performances of jazz-inspired ballet with lifts and tangible closeness between performers. Here dancers such as Brandon Randolph, Dallas McMurray and Nicole Sabella shine, showcasing Mark Morris for the powerhouse dance director he is.

There’s a stylised image to the performers with rigidity in the limbs, sharp and stiff movements. Paired with solid colours, courtesy of Elizabeth Kurtzman it is certainly more mod than rocker but feels like it’s through star-spangled tinted glasses, no doubt accurate but hyperrealism at its worst. What does compliment this costume exquisitely though is a sublimely simple set piece with accomplished lighting. Shades of Andy Warhol – the silver mounds strike the intense colours of Nick Kolin’s lighting atmospherically.

So, after it all – Pepperland is nothing if not complicated. Technically, it is brilliant but somehow plain and repetitious. Its score is creative, but questionable in its relationship with the source. Mark Morris Dance Group have done what it does, showcase talent and raise questions – the issue being that the questions raised are more about their production than ourselves.

Review orignally published for Reviews Hub:


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