Mark Morris' intoxicating 'Pepperland'

  • by Paul Parish
  • Friday October 5, 2018
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An excited crowd filled UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall last Friday night for the Bay Area premiere of the Mark Morris Dance Group's "Pepperland." The University Chancellor Carol Christ was on hand, as well as the President Janet Napolitano, former governor of Arizona and member of President Obama's Cabinet. Iit was an event, marking the opening of the dance season at Cal Performances with a festive, sparkling event that, given the importance of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" to the opening of the Doors of Perception as an event in our intellectual history, could well be taken as part of California's contribution to world culture.

It was also the local presentation of a piece commissioned by the City of Liverpool, home of the Beatles, as part of their celebration of the 50th anniversary of the grand splash the album made, when millions around the world got out their headphones (and maybe their weed or acid) and sat down to "read" "Sgt. Pepper" over and over, as has happened occasionally in history, usually with an intoxicating novel like "Werther." With "Sgt. Pepper," rock and roll became listening music.

"Pepperland" deserves an extended review-essay in The New York Review of Books. This one can only give some highlights and try to outline what an odd piece it is — almost as strange as Richard Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos," and like "Ariadne," a masterpiece. Most of its pleasures are incidental, as in the light, floating wrists of Laurel and Hardy from "Way Out West" in the dancing every now and then. Laurel and Hardy are on the record jacket, and many people from that crowd get at least subliminal recognition across the course of the evening.

Mark Morris is so not stupid. He understands that to return dance to music as symphonic as this can't be done directly. First of all, it's overexposed, and second, Liverpool wants something fun.

Morris commissioned his former music director, Ethan Iverson, director of The Bad Plus, to make new music out of the material, and got a wonderful score to work with that does its own psychedelic things, and never nags you with "Remember this?" little tugs on your memory. He's recreated the sense of possibilities opening up, and of new worlds of feeling and value that "we all could share, with our love" that the album gave to me when I was a 20-year-old closeted sissy from a traditional family down South, many years ago now.

Update: An earlier version of this article misstated the importance of the event. It was the Bay Area premiere of Pepperland, not the West Coast premiere.

Iverson uses a large jazz combo — trombone, Sax, piano, percussion, organ, plus harpsichord and theremin (the "weird" sound in many horror-movie soundtracks) to evoke the many different sounds the Beatles used, from the blatty oompah-band of "When I'm 64" to tremendous effect, to the psychedelic theremin's "nothing is real, I'm floating free of my body" feeling. Even more important, he distorts the basic rhythms of songs you think you know well. By the time we get to the end of "When I'm 64," what is basically a drinking song where a whole pub sings along has become quite drunken as the time gets stretched out with extra beats, and the kick-line is now reeling. Morris' choreography for this, and the dancers' wonderful handling of the swooping phrases, made the crowd laugh out loud.

Some songs you'd expect weren't there — not just "Mr. Kite" and "Good Morning," but also "She's Leaving Home," which was my first inkling that I was going to have to defy my family, that I could do it, and that we would all of us hate it. "How could he do this to me?" when it had been my life's work so far to make my mother proud. And "Penny Lane" is in "Pepperland." But then there is a Penny Lane in Liverpool. It's not only a street with a barber-shop, etc., but also a bus. They loved it in Liverpool.

"Within You and Without You" is the heart of the piece, as I think it should be. The lyrics set out the philosophy that unites all the songs, and the dance explores all the possible allusions, including an extended quote from Morris' first masterpiece, an essay in the classical Indian style, "O Rangasayee," from the 80s, danced exquisitely in the background by Dallas McMurray while Noah Vinson sits in the lotus position downstage and the other dancers move about him as if they were thoughts in his head. At "Try to realize it's all within yourself, no one else can make you change, and you'll see that we're all really one, and life flows on within you and without you," Vinson rises and begins to dance note-for-note with the same uncanny evenness of phrasing that the song has. Even as he turns, it never speeds up or slows down, the effect Yvonne Rainer was after in "Trio A."

There's a Zombie-walk version of a Balkan folk-dance, with lines of four, in which the last one always drops off and does some freaky thing before, at the last minute, clasping the hand in front of him and following his group offstage. The music sounds like a New Orleans funeral march, an effect unattempted by the Beatles, but to my mind the perfect embodiment of "He blew his mind out in a car."

At the reprise, all the dancers mass in strict band-formation and sing, "Sergeant Pepper's lonely, Sergeant Pepper's lonely, Sergeant Pepper's lonely, Sergeant Pepper's lonely — " With every key change, they change their facing. Their ability to do close harmony was surprising, like that of the Beatles themselves. It's a thrilling sound, and it made a satisfying ending to a piece that, after all, in the original, had the most astounding ending any of us had ever heard coming from popular music.

All the dancers were wonderful, especially Lauren Grant, Laurel Lynch, Durell Comedy, Billy Smith, Sam Black, Nicole Sabella, and Domingo Estrada.