Pepperland serves up the expected tie-dye nostalgia, keyed to a half-dozen Beatle tunes from the classic album.
By Susan B. Apel
“It was 20 years ago today . . .” begins the title track to the Beatles’ Grammy Award-winning concept album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But now it has been over 50 years, the better part of a lifetime of anyone who was there to experience the album when it was released in 1967. How to celebrate the album’s half-centennial?
Set up a triangular collaboration of the album’s iconic music between the multiple award-winning Mark Morris Dance Group and jazz composer Ethan Iverson. The huzzah of all things Beatle is called Pepperland. First performed in Liverpool (where else?) as part of a 50th anniversary celebration of Sgt. Pepper, the new dance work is on tour in the United States. New England performances includeJune 21 and 22 at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, CT, June 28 through 30 at the Moore Theater in the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College in Hanover NH, and part of the Celebrity Series on February 8 and 10 at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre in Boston.
The experience is full of the expected tie-dye nostalgia, keyed to a half-dozen Beatle tunes from the album. The song “Penny Lane” has been thrown in as a contemporary tune that fits the piece’s thematic aims. The songs may not be exactly as remembered; they have been reimagined and reinterpreted by Iverson (formerly of Bad Plus, now playing with the Billy Hart Quartet). He has been a big admirer of Sgt Pepper since his high school days, but he admits that he doesn’t fawn over the music. In fact, he tweaks the Beatles’ work in ways that have been characterized as discordant. Of “With A Little Help from My Friends,” for example, he blogged that “Our version is more vulnerable” than the original. Critics describe “When I’m 64” as “creakily jangled.” In keeping with the song’s lyrics, this re-interpretation is “wonderfully arthritic.”
Iverson has also composed some original music for Morris’s choreography, helping to complete what he calls “a fun and danceable score.” Spicing up rock music with jazz shouldn’t be surprising — that is what the Beatles did. Musicologists have praised Sgt Pepper album as a revolutionary (and sophisticated) blend of rock and roll, big band, jazz, blues, and Western and Indian classical music.
Morris’s dancers are costumed in neon ’60s-era fashion. The artistic mission of Pepperland is to evoke the energy and high spirits of the era. It is a self-conscious exercise in tunnel vision. As critics have noted, the serious, darker, political side, which existed in tandem with the era’s frivolity, is missing. There is some physical reenactment of the lyrics: dancers’s drag “a comb across my head”; a series of lifts illustrate how one gets “high with a little help from my friends.” Not all of the movement is quite so literal; the choreography ventures into the abstract as well.
Morris is known for preferring live music for performances of his works. For this project, Iverson (who was Morris’s musical director for five years) has put together an idiosyncratic group of musicians with whom he had always wanted to work. So Pepperland features a creatively-curated octet: Iverson is on piano, joined by a soprano sax, trombone, percussion, organ, harpsichord, theremin, and a vocalist.
How to explain what the ’60s were like to those who weren’t around? At the Hopkins Center, Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Dartmouth, will serve as the tour guide through the counterculture; his June 28 talk (at 7 p.m.) will move from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to Richard Nixon’s resignation. Iverson will give a free artist talk on June 29 (at 7 p.m.) at the Top of the Hop, and the Mark Morris dancers will offer a dance master class on June 30 at noon at Dartmouth’s Berry Sports Complex. In addition, the Hopkins Center is screening three films chosen by Morris to complement Pepperland’s ‘60s vibe: A Hard Day’s Night and Night of the Living Dead. Morris himself will introduce the third film, Blow-Up.
Pepperland is another in a series works co-commissioned by the Hopkins Center. The performance is part of SHIFT, a week-long celebration of summer that will include other artistic presentations, such as an imaginatively-staged version of The Merchant of Venice (it features five different Shylocks) by Compagnia de’ Colombari, at Dartmouth’s Bema, an outdoor amphitheater, June 26 through 28. (The group will perform the show as part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, CT, June 19 through 23.)
For further information about the performance at Dartmouth College, contact the Hopkins Center by phone at 603.646.2422 or visit here.
Susan B. Apel is a writer and law professor whose creative nonfiction and poetry has appeared in Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Best of Vine Leaves 2015, Rhizomes, The Vignette Review, Woven Tale Press, Bloodroot, and the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review. Her blog, ArtfulEdge, in which she writes about arts in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, appears regularly on the dailyUV.com. She is also a contributor to the newspaper, Vermont Woman. She lives in Lebanon, NH.