Oregon ArtsWatch: It was 51 years ago today

Mark Morris comes to town with ‘Pepperland,’ his take on ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

By HEATHER WISNER

I was working at SF Weekly in the mid-’90s when the Mark Morris Dance Group brought The Hard Nut, its take on The Nutcracker, to UC Berkeley. When the review came in from a freelance writer, the copy editor called me, the resident dance nerd, over to her desk. “The whole thing is about one part of the dance,” she said, pointing at her monitor. “Doesn’t that seem a little excessive?” I skimmed the piece, which focused on the Waltz of the Snowflakes. I hesitated, then said, “It does seem like a lot.”

But once I saw The Hard Nut, I got it. Mark Morris has many talents, not the least of which is forcing you to reconsider what you thought you knew—especially where music is concerned. The Hard Nut’s snow scene is a perfect microcosmic example: the waltz-y, pristine prettiness of the original becomes a joyful, snow-flinging swirl of movement in the remake. It might not be what you expected, but it feels right.

And so it is with Pepperland, the company’s witty and affectionate tribute to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, which White Bird, a co-commissioner of the piece, brought to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall February 21. Last year, the city of Liverpool commissioned Morris to create the work as part of the city’s 50th anniversary celebration of the album. But instead of using its music outright, Morris turned to former Bad Plus composer/pianist Ethan Iverson for a new score.

If you’re very attached to the original, Iverson’s incarnation can be hard going at first. But he stays true to the spirit of the album, alternating new arrangements of familiar tunes with original music that incorporates influences from the original: blues, vaudeville, pop, even baroque. He and his excellent ensemble play it live, with singer Clinton Curtis giving a formal reading of the lyrics, Colin Fowler drawing harpsichord sounds from his keyboard, and Rob Schwimmer jumping in on theremin, an inspired touch. It sounds in total like an acoustic version of its predecessor.

Pepperland’s dancing, too, evokes the album and the era without getting overly attached. Wearing costume designer Elizabeth Kurtzman ’60s-inspired pastiche of vivid colors and bold prints, the dancers don mirrored shades as they enter, one by one, to Curtis’ roll call of the figures pictured on the album’s cover (“May I introduce to you … Fred Astaire!” “May I introduce to you…a statue from John Lennon’s house!”) Social dances of the day, like the Hitchhike, bump into social dances from previous eras, including the can-can and the Charleston, all couched in an unfussy modern vocabulary, performed with an expansive, open-hearted quality.

Morris colors in the blanks Iverson leaves behind in “A Little Help from my Friends”: When the song asks, “Do you need anybody?” the dancers answer with steps where lyrics (“I just need someone to love”) used to be. And Morris capitalizes on Iverson’s off-kilter time signatures in “When I’m Sixty-Four”: “In between 6 and 4 is 5,” Iverson’s notes read. “All three (counts to the bar) are heard beneath the music-hall scuffle.” Translated into movement, the dancers, who enter the stage with great bounding jumps, become engaged in a woozy tug-of-war between slowed-down and speeded-up tempos.

Though it wasn’t actually on the album, “Penny Lane” also makes an appearance here with recurring movement phrases illustrating the song’s familiar scenes, such as the woman holding a coat over her head, dashing across the stage (the banker who never wears a mac in the pouring rain) or the cluster of dancers tilting their heads to the right (every head the barber has had the pleasure to know.)

Pepperland only lasts an hour, and I don’t think anyone would have minded if it went on a bit longer, but Morris, who joined the company onstage for a standing ovation, knows what he’s doing. The Summer of Love was another lifetime ago, you can’t help but think when you leave. We can’t get it back, but at least we still have a piece of it with us.

Oregon ArtsWatch: It was 51 years ago today