Pepperland by Mark Morris Dance Group is at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh for two nights only (Friday 5th and Saturday 6th April) but if you are reading this review in time, try and catch the show, or another one somewhere on this tour as it is an innovative take on the music itself plus wonderful choreography. We are of course all now viewing this album through the nostalgia memories of our pop culture coloured glasses, but the show brings to vibrant life and colour and somehow the very essence of the now iconic album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by, of course, The Beatles.
Somehow (don’t ask me how), over 50 years have now passed since Sgt. Pepper’s was released to an eagerly awaiting public and it celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017 and, unlike many exploitive takes by so many people on the cultural legacy of The Beatles music, this show is definitely not in that category, in fact just the opposite as the City of Liverpool itself approached Mark Morris to ask if he could develop a project for them to be part of the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s release. Pepperland is the result of that collaboration and, just for the record, this show is not a straight dance to the music of the album. In fact, the album is not played here at all. Yes, we have interpretations of some of the iconic music from this album (not every track), but there are no Beatles vocals or Beatles played music to be heard anywhere in Pepperland. What we do have is an insightful new look at the music on the album by composer and arranger Ethan Iverson and new linking music between the known works with everything here being given a more jazz influenced feel that suits the choreography perfectly.
Apart from the music, the first thing that most people will notice about Pepperland is the brightness and boldness of the colours of the costumes that our dancers are wearing. These costumes are representative of what so many people now imagine the “swinging 60s” to have looked like, when in reality, outside of a few key streets in London, the period for most of us was still as grey and drab as the decades before it. Pepperland is a dream-like world and Mark Morris is one of the few contemporary choreographers who has the vision to bring that dream world to life on stage in dance with works that not only reflect the music but pay homage to classical and other dance styles along the way. There are many moments of wonderful story-telling going on here within any of the individual works and a gentle, but never over the top, humour running throughout everything; Pepperland is a world of the absurd at times, but it is so relevant to the imaginary world of Sgt. Pepper’s.
One of the things that makes this work so special is that music and dance are inseparable from one another to Mark Morris and, in a world where many dance companies perform to pre-recorded music (at least when touring), his company always uses live music, so every performance is subtly different from the last one as dancers adapt to tiny variations and also different performance spaces on the tour. Mark Morris Dance Company of course has some of the best contemporary dancers out there at the moment and together they made the meticulously choreographed and planned world of Pepperland look effortlessly improvised, a very difficult task to do.
There are some really nice touches to this work including introducing us to some of the people on the now iconic album covers. First mentioned though is Billy Shears (Ringo’s alter-ego on the album). Conspiracy theorists can make what they want of this. The music of the album, in fact Beatles music in general, is of course so widely known that it is impossible now for many people in the world under a certain age to imagine a world without it, and even though you know the album track is not coming here, something in your head still primes you to expect it. That of course makes for an interesting situation when the expected is not there and the music is an improvisation, and Clinton Curtis does a great job here when required on vocals. The re-works of some of the best known music in pop history is also innovative and fresh here with “A Day In The Life” and “Within You Without You” being my two favourite from this show. Wonderful too to hear the very distinctive sounds of the Theremin being played.
I have to admit though (and this is probably heresy to many people) that it has never been my favourite album from this period, or even my favourite Beatles album – Revolver and Rubber Soul always take a place in that list for me over this one. There are however many iconic songs on Sgt Pepper’s and it somehow came to capture and symbolise for many that whole period in time, and for decades has been inspiring generations of new creatives. It is impossible for so many people now to imagine living in a world without the music from this album, or any Beatles music. For myself, I still find an odd irony in the fact that the very album that The Beatles made to become another band (Sgt Pepper’s) and not be The Beatles has become probably their most iconic and definitively associated with recording. Mark Morris has with Pepperland added yet another wonderful strand to the legacy of this iconic and innovative album, and it is always worth remembering just how young all four members of The Beatles were when they wrote the music for Sgt. Pepper’s. Oddly, we are looking backwards, while The Beatles of course were only ever looking forwards.
Review by Tom King