Smile Politely

A night in Pepperland with the Mark Morris Dance Group and Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble

With over two decades of Mark Morris Dance Group fandom under my belt, I was beyond ready to celebrate MMDG’s 20th year of partnership with Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the opening night performance of Pepperland.  

In last week’s preview of Pepperland, I had focused largely on the work’s musical evolution.  As I took my seat last Friday night, surrounded by the sounds of the MMDG Music Ensemble warming up, all I could think about was the promotional shot below, which had been featured in my story and now in my program. 

If these shapes were any indication of the level of energy, humor, and dynamic movement Pepperland  had in store for us, tonight’s performance would be worth a follow up.  And it most definitely was. 

MMDG performs with a luxuriously deep bench of seventeen dancers—a number which allows us to enjoy Morris’ stunning choreography through a diverse range of bodies and personalities. Perhaps more significantly, it easily lends itself to complex explorations of relationships within and without of ourselves.

“Sgt. Pepper” spoke deeply to us of our inherent need to connect—either through love, spirituality, or seemingly mundane interactions with fellow humans. Pepperland takes this conversation deeper as the dancers, first appearing as a unit, circling into and around each other like an LP on a turnstile, slowly drift into trios, pairs and soloists. Pepperland’s structure takes us from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” to “With a Little Help From My Friends,” from “When I’m Sixty-Four,” to “Within You, Without You,” from “Penny Lane” to “A Day in the Life”—and along the way the dancers explore the heights and depths of romantic love, the fear of aging and remembrance, and the tragedy of war. 

From its earliest moments, Pepperland shines with Morris’ signature wit and insight.  A quick Google Images search serves to remind us just how many cultural and historical “Easter eggs” are buried within the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” cover art.  “Magna Carta,” Pepperland’s second movement, invokes many of those famous faces hidden in the background. As we are introduced to Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Temple, and Laurel + Hardy, just to name a few, the dancers are at their comic best. But this is not just for laughs. This is to layer in cultural context, perhaps even to hold these figures up as archetypes of knowledge, desire, youth, and levity. 

Morris’ choreography draws from a rich and unique vocabulary. In one movement, say the one in the previously mentioned promotional image, he can convey both the desire to reach out and the desire to hold back; the sense of elation and the feeling of being off-kilter. Dancers lift each other up and struggle to carry each other’s burdens. They move together in states of connection and disconnection, sometimes simultaneously. 

For years Morris’ choreography has worked beyond heteronormative pairings, and during the opening night of Pepperland it was a joy to see them received with smiles but litte to no surprise. Though the sight of a petite female dancer lifting and carrying a male dancer off stage brought down the house. Let’s just hope it was more of a “you go, girl” moment. 

There were too many blissfully funny and deeply moving moments to list, but among my favorites were these. The lone yogi in lotus pose surrounded by an explosion of dancers in “Within You, Without You.” The seemily mundane gestures and movements throughout “Penny Lane” (see below) which remind us that no one runs or walks more beautifully or purposefully than a MMDG dancer. Watching the dancers wind down like tired, old clocks as they struggle to keep up with the 6,5,4 beat in “When I”m Sixty-Four,” and finally, the dancers crawling across the stage like soldiers under fire in “As Day in the Life.” 

None of these moments would have achieved their full impact without the MMDG Music Ensemble’s performance of Iverson’s score or Elizabeth Kurtzman’s costume design. Baritone Clinton Curtis’ surprising delivery of familiar lyrics kept nostaliga at bay.  His uninflected voice demanded that we experience these words anew. 

Kurtzman’s highly-satured, Mod-inspired costumes carried hints of Carnaby Street with a twist on the original Sgt. Pepper’s military band uniforms. Thanks to her range of palette and patterns, the dancers seemed to kaleidoscope through time and space. The choice of reflective sunglasses, a seeminlgy, small, yet effective detail, read rock star/celebrity/stoner while also suggesting that we often keep our true selves hidden from others and seek meaning in our own reflections.  

And of course, there was a theremin, which in the capable hands of Rob Schwimmer, brought the perfect amount of pyschedelia and mystery to this night of traveling within, without, and back in time.  Its very presence continued to be a point of conversation before and after the performance. 

Editor’s note: For those of you who may not be familiar with this wonder, the theremin is an electronic instrument which is “played” by the energy from the player’s hands activating the antenna.  

My night in Pepperland was one I will happily revisit many times in memory, and perhaps, if I’m lucky, one I will experience again live.  My deepest thanks to Mr. Morris and to the members of the MMDG and MMDG Music Ensemble for continuing to bring such treasures to Champaign-Urbana. Happy 20th anniversary. 

Pepperland is a Mark Morris Dance Group production in association with: Seattle Theatre Group, Seattle, Washington; American Dance Festival, Durham, North Carolina; BAM, Brooklyn, New York; Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity with the Sony Centre, Toronto, Canada; Cal Performances, UC Berkeley, California; Celebrity Series of Boston, Massachusetts; The City of Liverpool, England, U.K.; Dance Consortium UK; Hopkins Center for the Arts, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire; International Festival of Arts & Ideas, New Haven, Connecticut; The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.; Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; La Jolla Music Society, La Jolla, California; Meyer Sound, Berkeley, California; —Segerstrom Center for The Arts, Costa Mesa, California; UCSB Arts & Lectures, Santa Barbara, California; and White Bird, Portland, Oregon

Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin Ave, Urbana
March 8th + 9th, 7:30 p.m.

Learn more about the Mark Morris Dance Group here

All photos from the Mark Morris Dance Group except photo of theremin, which is from Wikipedia

Arts Editor

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