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The album that changed the way we listen to music may have spawned the dance piece that changes the way we view movement. This week at Durham Performing Arts Center, Mark Morris unveiled his synthesis of love, music, movement, and those four boys from Liverpool in the exuberant Pepperland.
While the title recalls the fictional town from The Beatles' Yellow Submarine film, the concept takes directly from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. A seminal record still, 50 years later, Morris and composer Ethan Iverson simultaneously peel back the many layers of the album whilst putting it back together. The album is a head-spinning trip that takes multiple hearings to appreciate its intricate, intelligent ways – Pepperland does the same.
The evening exhilarated in all respects. The costumes by designer Elizabeth Kurtzman, a kaleidoscope of bright, loud colors that energized each number, even when the mood was turned down. Nick Kolin's lighting perfectly complemented the costumes.
The evening began as the album does: a very long chord followed by a rock anthem of "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band" sung brilliantly off-key by Clinton Curtis. Right off the bat, Iverson's dissonant re-working of the title song maked us a bit uneasy, but the song was so familiar, we couldn't help but become intrigued.
Iverson does remain faithful to several songs, throwing his own twist on it to accentuate the humor of it (his Vaudeville "When I'm Sixty Four" breaks the traditional 4/4 shuffle for a 5/4 meter to make the number sound like a broken record) or to pay homage to it ("Penny Lane" and the theremin nocturne "A Day in the Life"). His inclusion of the theremin, played by the legendary player Rob Schwimmer, was wholly from the 60s yet adds a level of, without any form of irony, alien-ness to the piece.
Indeed, Morris' dancers began and ended the show in a herd, a crowd that hugged and swayed together, reminiscent of the Beatles' decree of "love, love, love." In the second piece of the evening, Curtis and the orchestra introduced the cast of characters, many of the icons on the cover of the album including Monroe, Sonny Bono, and Schoenberg. The dancers assumed these identities by putting on sunglasses and posing in the icon's signature pose (if they have one – how do we know what Schoenberg stood for a photograph?). Throughout the evening, the dancers would travel in groups of three or four, performing the dance equivalent of a musical canon. One group off to the left begab, a beat later the group on the right begab, meanwhile other dancers appeared to break those molds, but the structure and ritual remained. Morris and Iverson broke apart the mold of what we expected when we hear Sgt. Pepper's only to put it back together with a new way of looking at it.
Accompanied by a live orchestra, featured Iverson on keyboard, the evening served as a crowning achievement by ADF in examining how we look at pop culture and its messages. The musical allusions to Glen Gould, Petula Clark, and even Schoenberg – all prominent figures in the Beatles' musical lives – was deftly subtle and humorous. Morris' company is a tight-knit community of dancers whose energy and precision to smaller movements create a powerful effect that isn't fully realized until long after you've left the theater. Morris manipulates the eye by creating patterns of movement that fill the enormous DPAC stage, a challenge tried and (sometimes) succeeded by previous ADF companies. Morris knows how to move people, both on stage and off. His tableaus do not create an overall narrative but serve as meditations on the themes of each song. It does help to familiarize yourself with the descriptions of each movement prior to watching, as the wit and thoughtfulness of his choreography would be better appreciated.
So then, perhaps the only way to objectively look at a piece of pop culture history is to disconnect from it entirely in order to create a new perspective. In this respect, Pepperland is Morris' masterpiece, a look at a defining moment in history that takes the themes, structure, and ideas of the original and provides insight into how timeless and relevant it remains.