“Pepperland,” Mark Morris’s ecstatic and provocative tribute to the Beatles and to life, is like no land that the choreographer has taken us to before. Yet there is so much in this hour-long explosion of color, dynamic tension and complex emotion that feels familiar.
Added bonus: It feels especially right for this exact moment in Washington, as impeachment hearings dig into a embattled presidency.
Does that mean “Pepperland” is political? No.
It’s up to you. What jumps out in “Pepperland” may depend on your level of general unease. (Mine is pretty high, I’m not going to lie.) Fear not, however, that you will be clobbered with a “message.” Morris is too sophisticated, too masterful an artist, for that. “Pepperland” is, first and foremost, an exuberant celebration of the “Sgt. Pepper” album. It premiered in Liverpool in May 2017 as part of that city’s “Sgt. Pepper at 50 Festival.”
But “Pepperland” is not a nostalgic trip back to Swinging London. Elizabeth Kurtzman’s youthful, gorgeous costumes are the closest thing to a period reference; the miniskirts and velvet suits in solid crayon colors are decidedly Mod, but they’re also a bit Boden catalogue. Mod has swung back around to modern.
Morris’s musical collaborator Ethan Iverson, the jazz pianist and composer, arranged five songs from the Beatles’ album — “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “A Day in the Life,” “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Within You Without You,” as well as “Penny Lane,” which was not on the album but, as Iverson explains in program note, it was originally planned for it. He also composed half a dozen original, Beatles-inspired pieces. All the music is performed live by the MMDG Music Ensemble, which includes Clinton Curtis’s rich, clear vocals and musicians on saxophone, trombone, piano, percussion and the rarely used theremin, played by hovering one’s hands near two antennae that control pitch and volume to elicit an ethereal, moaning sound.
The overarching sense is that you’re hearing and viewing this well-known album through a kaleidoscope, the songs fragmented and dissected. Iverson, whose contribution is every bit as critical to “Pepperland” as the choreography, has disassembled the songs and animated only certain elements. The piece opens with the chord that famously closed “A Day in the Life,” a clock-stopping, emotional release to cap the pensive, many-layered symphony of existence that song expresses. When the curtain rises, a visually arresting image hints at a topsy-turvy atmosphere, as the dancers walk backward in circles, as if there’s something wrong with their wiring.
“Pepperland” makes you think, as Morris works typically do, because there is more to his creation than musical athleticism and clever, elaborate visual patterns. There’s a subtle sense of sadness. The operative theme is the lonely heart, trying to find companionship in the world, sometimes succeeding, other times failing even amid a crowd of happy eccentrics tumbling and stumbling along.
Uneasiness seeps in. Occasionally the dancers don dark sunglasses, becoming masked and militaristic, especially when they also whip crisply into rigid alignments. In his memoir, “Out Loud,” Morris describes wanting “something scarier . . . a little North Korean,” and at a post-performance question-and-answer session he referred to the look as “a little fascist, a little Pyongyang.”
He said it lightheartedly, but as in so much of the dance, the impression is simultaneously witty and dark. Morris was joined by Iverson in the discussion on Thursday; the choreographer sipped red wine and delivered the same basic facts he always does at these entertaining sessions: that this brilliant work arose, first, from some iffy ideas and misdirections and a supportive community of gifted dancers and collaborators (music, lighting, decor, costuming), and bit by bit a messy process transformed into an artistic whole.
The best question came last: A woman asked why there was so much sorrow in the work.
Morris didn’t hesitate. His answer was chipper but firm: “Because it’s a sad [expletive] world.”
The absurdities of contemporary life occupied the Beatles, too. “Pepperland” comments at once on our time and on the timeless. It examines the unrelenting quest for fellowship when it’s easier to spin apart. No, there’s nothing nostalgic in “Pepperland.” It is all too current. The smile you carry away from it is one of recognition.
The Mark Morris Dance Group performs “Pepperland” at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through Saturday. $55-$119. 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.
Morris will discuss his new memoir, “Out Loud,” with co-author Wesley Stace at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. N.W., on Nov. 17 at 5 p.m. Free.
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