Created for last year’s Sgt. Pepper at 50 festival in Liverpool, Mark Morris Dance Group’s Pepperland is an hour-long celebration of the Fab Four’s eighth album. Brightly colored costumes and approachable but quirky choreography abound, as the 15-member company paces cheerfully through the evening, bringing joy sprinkled lightly, ever so lightly, with nostalgia.

Mark Morris Dance Group in <i>Pepperland</i> © Mat Hayward
Mark Morris Dance Group in Pepperland
© Mat Hayward

What makes this piece entirely Mark Morris is, even more than the dancing, the music. Morris has always insisted on live music with his performances, and he has an unerring ear for the sonically brilliant and unusual. Recall his Romeo and Juliet, which was set to Prokofiev’s music as the composer originally wrote it, before it was altered – tamed into conformity, if you will – by Soviet censors, both artistic and political.

The MMDG Music Ensemble was formed in 1996, and its repertory ranges from Purcell to Lou Harrison. For Pepperland the ensemble collaborated with Ethan Iverson, a former MMDG Music Ensemble director and a founding member of the New York–based The Bad Plus, known for its radical blend of jazz and rock. For Morris’ Beatles aslant, Iverson has used six pieces from the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Band album and interleaved it with six of his own witty works, all of which take some fragment of the original music then bend, twist and spin it off into some wild space of sonic playfulness. It fits perfectly Morris’ own brand of madcap choreographic melding.

Twisting an original idea into something completely different is characteristic of Pepperland. Take for example, the second section titled “Magna Carta.” Set to Iverson’s music, baritone Clinton Curtis announces people and things – Introducing Shirley Temple! Sonny Liston! Oscar Wilde! a statue from John Lennon’s house! – with each name a dancer enters and strikes an appropriate and comic pose. Iverson describes it as “a formal invocation of personalities from the LP Cover.” It’s a sly and kinetic tribute to the Beatles as visual artists, an often unremarked but essential aspect of their art.

Dallas McMurray, Sarah Haarmann, Sam Black of MMDG in <i>Pepperland</i> © Mat Hayward
Dallas McMurray, Sarah Haarmann, Sam Black of MMDG in Pepperland
© Mat Hayward
The choreography is more straightforward in its conception. Based on synchronous movement, it emphasizes walking, running, and prancing in shifting lines and circles that are richly kinetic, and non-stop in their upbeat energy. Mime is used more than anything resembling classical dance. The penultimate “A Day in the Life” is acted, rather than sung. And the words are so familiar that the simple mime-like enactments, from someone opening a paper to the English Army crawling on its belly, dissolve the audience’s desire for words.

Other songs are gorgeously sung by Curtis, who has the exact placement and full tone of a classically trained singer. Once again, the Beatles aslant, but captivating. Several times voice is replaced by the theremin, played by Rob Schwimmer, with its eerie wailing that sounds so much like a human voice. Short figures of harpsichord, added by music director Colin Fowler, conjure up the continuo of baroque opera.

“When I’m 64” was alluringly put together as a kind of chorus line kicking just this side of dementia, with 6, 4 and 5 beats to the bar heard along an otherwise “music-hall scuffle.” Dancers spin off from the chorus line and clap to their own prescribed rhythm. “Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?” The answer hardly matters in a world where everyone seemingly dances to their own idiosyncratic and lovable drum but the chorus line still holds together with whacky tenacity.

The setting for this theatrical dance piece was equally vibrant, with set designer Johan Henkens’ line of crushed reflective material, like a small mountain range of cast-off tin foil, upstage providing dazzling surfaces for Nick Kolin’s ever-changing lighting design. Elizabeth Kurtzman provided the pink, red, yellow, cobalt blue and purple outfits, and sunglasses that decorated many a nose.

It’s all good, as someone once said.

*****