Christopher Bernard reviews Mark Morris Dance Troupe’s Pepperland



Mark Morris Dance Group

Zellerbach Hall

Berkeley, California

A review by Christopher Bernard

Mark Morris Dance Group performing Pepperland. (Credit: Mat Hayward.)

Eat your heart out, atheists: there is a god, and his name is Mark Morris.

To prove his divinity once again (though what god needs to prove his divinity? I should say: to display it to us hapless mortals), he brought his company of angels, fallen and otherwise, to Berkeley over the last weekend in September to ravish mere humanity with an hour-long dance based on one of the most inspired and exuberant and original and humane of all albums of popular music—the Beatles’ seminal (for once, the word is apt) contribution to what few virtues we have left in our world today: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

It is almost embarrassing to salute so fulsomely a work of such wit, humor, graciousness, humanity, and eternal youthfulness. It stands uneasily on its pedestal, threatening at any moment to throw itself onto a 60’s dancefloor and show the rest of us how it is actually done.

But it doesn’t need to do anything so ruthlessly good natured, because Morris has beaten them to it with a riot of dancing that shines at the rest of us his own tumultuous yet perfectly controlled brilliance, his inventiveness and humanity, his quintessential humor and deeply whacked wit, which can now be permanently associated with the sassy Liverpudlians.

Pepperland is the joy-filled result—a party to which all humankind is invited—danced to arrangements of half a dozen cuts from the original album, separated by original pieces by the arranger, Ethan Iverson (pianist in the MMDG Music Ensemble, which performs the music live).

The cuts include the opening and closing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Ringo Starr’s “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” George Harrison’s “Within You Without You,” and a darkly ecstatic version of “A Day in the Life.” Also included is “Penny Lane,” originally intended for the album but appearing instead in the under-rated Magical Mystery Tour. One of the album’s defining songs is alluded to in visual echoes as, every so often, like a bird flying across an outdoor dance, a female dancer, held high by male dancers, flies across the stage: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Having paid due homage to his Divinity, one has to add one’s pocketful of demurrers: even the best divinities can bear a little criticism (see Abraham and Yahweh, “Genesis,” passim).

With Morris’s choreography, at its best few things are better. His work can be not only wildly and weirdly inventive; one can find more wit and warmth and good-natured humor in a single dance of his than appears in a dozen pieces by otherwise gifted and talented choreographers. Nevertheless, any given work can be uneven. For example, the opening dances here have more filler than is strictly necessary while waiting for inspiration to kick in. When it finally does, with the drolly drunken melee of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” the effect is electric: the spectator too gets half-drunk on joy.

The joy is kept aloft in the next dance—a fugue and quadrille of weavers and mincers, hieroglyphs and fauns—called simply “Allegro”; then abates in a dutiful “Within You Without You”; returns full blast in the next two numbers; goes a little numb in “Cadenza”; then runs full tilt in the final, climactic set of three—which, after a brilliantly false conclusion, enchants with an unexpected reprise of some of the most endearing motifs danced earlier.

Morris’s group is woven together so tightly that no one dancer stood out dramatically from the rest: they were splendid, all of them, and did themselves, their company, and the work proud on the afternoon I saw them. (Though I’ve got to admit I can’t get Durrell R. Comedy’s moves out of my head.)

If I have any serious critique, it is of the arrangements: if one was hoping (as I was) to hear the original Beatles versions, one was in for a disappointment. The Mark Morris Dance Group is pledged to presenting live music at its shows, and of course such a thing wouldn’t have been possible even if all of the Beatles had been alive, as Sgt. Pepper is singularly studio-bound: the album’s music is, literally, impossible to perform live.

But the arrangements do not always do the music justice; in some cases, they point up the musical banalities (sorry, but it must be said) of some of the original songs, though they also show that even suboptimal versions of pieces such as “Penny Lane” make plain the music’s underlying strengths. Fortunately, Iverson’s original compositions are consistently stimulating, danceable, often inspired, and so help make up for the arrangements’ deficiencies—and his way with a harpsichord (which makes a witty appearance every so often, like a wink between a bag wig and an Edwardian tie) is as inspired as with a piano. (Although, speaking in aside: the Theremin, which at times slows down the proceedings in a very un-Liverpudlian puddle of treacle, could be lost without one of us, to be candid, missing a thing.)

The gods (there is more than one, naturally) blessed us as they passed. The glow of their passage hung—brightly, brilliantly, briefly—over a day in the life.


Christopher Bernard is co-editor and poetry editor of Caveat Lector. He writes on dance, drama, and art for Synchronized Chaos. His most recent book is the poetry collection Chien Lunatique.