ROYAL COURT, LIVERPOOL
Reviewed by Mark Brown
It was 50 years ago today (more or less) that The Beatles released their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. How better to mark this musical milestone than with a festival, entitled Sgt. Pepper at 50, in which the Fab Four’s home city of Liverpool hosts 13 commemorative cultural events (one for every track on the album)?
Such a festival deserves a grand opening, and they don’t get much grander than Pepperland, the world premiere of a specially commissioned work by the internationally acclaimed Mark Morris Dance Group. Combining dance by the New York-based company with a musical score by American composer Ethan Iverson, the show is a truly joyous, celebratory work of art.
The opener, a dance to Iverson’s minimal, jazzy arrangement of the album’s title track, sets the tone perfectly. The relaxed, quasi-operatic singing of splendid baritone Clinton Curtis underlines the innovative distinctiveness of the music.
Meanwhile Morris’s extraordinarily talented dancers perform a choreography that combines balletic precision with deliciously unexpected moments of physical discordance and quirky humour. The delightful exuberance of the dance finds the ideal partner in Elizabeth Kurtzman’s gorgeous costumes, gloriously colourful affairs inspired by the psychedelic pastiche army uniforms worn by The Beatles on the classic cover of Sgt. Pepper.
Iverson’s arrangements of songs from the album are interspersed with his own original compositions, which draw upon contemporary classical and baroque influences. The prominent place given to the electrophonic instrument the theremin is surprisingly satisfying, not least during Morris’s touching choreography for Penny Lane.
The general cheerfulness of the work is punctuated by moments of humanistic reflection. This is particularly true of the response to George Harrison’s song Within You Without You, which was famously inspired by eastern spiritual teaching.
The dance begins, appropriately, with a lone performer, floating across the stage, as if in cosmic isolation. Soon, however, he is replaced by a vibrant ensemble, moving singularly and collectively, embodying Harrison’s reflection that humanity is indivisibly “all one”.
Played on a simple set (designer Johan Henckens’s little mountain of shiny foil cleverly illuminated by Nick Kolin), Pepperland is a wonderful platform for the skill, intelligence and athleticism of the Mark Morris Dance Group. It is also a suitably unique and brilliant homage to one of the great rock albums.
At Royal Court, Liverpool until May 27. For details of the festival, visit: sgtpepperat50.com
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 26, 2017
© Mark Brown