On June 14 and 15, 2019, The Segerstrom Center for the Arts hosted the Mark Morris Dance Group and it’s remarkable Pepperland which was a treat for the eye, heart and intellect.  This tribute to the Beatles album release was commissioned for the Sgt. Pepper 50th Anniversary Festival in Liverpool, England in 2017 and is on tour throughout the U.S.

According to Morris:

This piece is for people who love… or hate the Beatles.“  This is not a nostalgic trip for people my age in their 60’s …It’s not like recreating my youth, I’m not interested in that – but the music is great and of course it was only recorded and never done as a live score so to re-imagine it with living musicians in this is a re-thinking of this music.  Even if you know it, you’re going to be surprised by it.   And I guarantee that it’s not like anything you’ve ever seen or heard before.  It’s new!  So it doesn’t need to be revised, updated, explained or defended.  It can make you feel in a way that you’ve never felt before.”

And feeling, delighting and experiencing is exactly what happens.

Mark Morris Dance Group - "Pepperland". Photo by Gareth Jones.

Mark Morris Dance Group – “Pepperland” – Photo by Gareth Jones.

The luminaries in this Beatles re-imagining were many.  Definitely, the choreography of the guileless Mark Morris; and his dancers, Mica Bernas, Sam Black, Karlie Budge, Brandon Cournay, John Eirich, Domingo Estrada, Jr. Lesley Garrison, Lauren Grant, Laurel Lynch, Dallas McMurray, Brandon Randolph, Nicole Sabella, Christina Sahaida, Billy Smith and Noah Vinson.  These improvisatory, technically amazing, live and vibrant charlatans of movement delighted the audience with Morris’ joyous trickery, elating and surprising with great aplomb.  They were all an example of creativity and boldness expressing nothing ‘pat’ or ordinary about this 50-year-old classic.

Certainly the music and musicians; Pianist, Composer and Arranger Ethan Iverson (Bad Plus, Billy Hart quartet, Mark Morris) who wrote and re-arranged the Beatles music for a mixed band that feature the “monster musicians”, Sam Newsome on Soprano Sax; Jacob Garchik- trombone,  Colin Fowler- organ/harpsichord, an outrageous addition, Vincent Sperrazza – percussion and Rob Schwimmer – Theremin, an instrument so reminiscent of scary movies of the 50’s and 60’s; yet Iverson’s appreciation and use of such an exquisite sound for this project eased us into a reminder of less fallacious times.  And lastly the talented Baritone, Clinton Curtis on vocals who helped his colleagues frolic between the classical and pop worlds, and added swank to the revered lyrics.

Elizabeth Kurtzman’s mod costumes, in bright vivid neon colors, clash together in patterns of stripes and solids that leave one breathless.  And even the curious set was improvisational, designed by illustrious scenic designer Johan Henckens known for his wonderful theatre work over the decades.  According to Morris, because of time and budget, Henckens invented a crimped collage made from “Hyperthermia blankets” crossing the upstage from left to right that holographically reflected the light, like a prism, picking up the warmth and subtlety of the lively lighting design by Nick Kolin.

Morris confesses that Pepperland was only to be one song but, when he started working, it became five pieces from the original album, an addition of Penny Lane from the single, and four inventions composed by Ethan Iverson, the unpretentious, cool and quite erudite composer-arranger, who had been Morris’ Music Director for five years.  They collaborated, adding their musical genius to create this uplifting, colorful, and ingenious piece of art.

The introduction of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sets the audience on an adventure through time, which Iverson grabs from the classic songs, adding inventions on four of the themes.  The pieces explore the allegro form, which develops, into a full-on sonata from a single trombone line.  And the adagio, exposes tenderness in twos by three couples, morphing into a dance of love, some lifting and sustaining, some rocking in a sensual two step and two gently alighting into a romantic embrace.

Mark Morris Dance Group - Pepperland - Photo by Gareth Jones

Mark Morris Dance Group – Pepperland – Photo by Gareth Jones

When I’m Sixty Four leads into a cacophonous set of visual rhythms and sounds leading the dancers through challenging 3 against 4 and 5 count rhythms, and throwing the audience into a spin, attempting to locate where they are in this whirlwind concoction.

Lauren Grant, impressive long time member of the company, explains how rhythmically challenging it was for the dancers in the beginning.  Training with Morris and Iverson, two ingenious musicians, helped focus the cacophony of complexities and integrate the whole.

Iverson’s unique Scherzo inspired a number in high color, adding sunglasses and cool modness with the support of chords from “Sgt. Pepper”.

Wilbur Scoville, inventor of measuring heat in hot sauce, (the inspiration for Sergeant Pepper), is a blues guitar lick which transforms into a real blues section of stylized walks while holding hands a la Pina Bausch.  The dancer’s hand holding while strutting in time, double time and half time…then moving on to a drug stupor that fascinates.  Coming forward is the Cadenza of Penny Lane Bach-like that narrows attention to finding the familiar in the new.

And in a kind of reverie, The Day In the Life piece brings us back to another time, “I went into a dream…Ahah!” the dancers (who are usually considered mute) come together and in a stunning surprise, they sing.   In a flood of emotion, one tears up for the radicalness of this experience and those memories that come flooding back.

The moving hopefulness of Morris and Iverson’s work, makes Pepperland a necessary revisit on a regular basis.  It’s handled with such love and care that Southern Cal looks forward to Mark Morris Dance Group’s return to re-experience the light and color, artistry and joy of this important re-invention.

For more information about the Mark Morris Dance Group, click here.

For more information on what’s happening at The Segerstrom Center for the Arts, click here.

Featured image: Mark Morris Dance Group – Pepperland– Photo by Robbie Jack