by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN Contributing Writer
MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP
The Beatles' monumental album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, exploded onto the charts in the UK and USA in 1967, where it remained at number one for the better part of a year. It provided the theme music for an entire generation of high school and college students, hippies, soldiers, war protesters, and psychedelic drug aficionados during one of the most turbulent periods in American history.
In 1967 President Johnson had just escalated the war in Vietnam, where 450 American soldiers were being killed in combat every month. Young American men were divided into two camps: those who submitted to the draft and those who elected to go to jail or to Canada in order to dodge the draft. Veterans and 'hardhats' were locked in a class war with 'longhairs' and hippies over military service. Parents who fought and won WWII were appalled by their own children, who refused to defend their country by fighting in Vietnam. Anti-war protests in cities and on college campuses were frequent and violent. So when John, Paul, George, and Ringo appeared on the cover of Sgt. Pepper in their wildly colorful uniforms surrounded by a crowd of celebrities - from Marilyn Monroe to Oscar Wilde - they looked like officers in the alternative army many young Americans would rather have joined.
I was in college in 1967 and I remember exactly where I was when I first heard Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The whole album was so revolutionary, and so welcome, that most of my contemporaries can recall where they were when they first heard it, and how it felt to have their musical heroes come to the rescue during what was a terrible, terrible time to be young. Everyone was vulnerable to the old men in power cranking up the war machine, taking away your boyfriend, brother, husband, son, or classmate. Young men were faced with life-and-death decisions: stave off the draft by going to college, being a conscientious objector, or fleeing to Canada, or have the luck to be the only son of a widow, to have an illness like diabetes, or a high draft lottery number. Otherwise you were up shit creek. Whether you ended up in boot camp, 'in country,' marching on Washington, or setting fire to the ROTC building, you knew the truth of what the Beatles said so clearly in Sgt. Pepper - that the only way to get by was with a little help from your friends.
Now fast forward fifty years. It came as welcome news that my favorite choreographer, Mark Morris, was commissioned by the City of Liverpool to create a new dance to honor the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Even though Morris is not British, it was a logical choice. Like the Beatles, Morris is famous for his wit, vibrancy and humor, for his sensitive ear for music of all types, and for the invention of new forms of expressive artistry. Morris' choreography builds on established dance forms while reinventing them for contemporary audiences. He brings multi-layered depth to dance using allusions from ancient forms, folk dances, and myth to create truly sublime experiences for the viewer.
So how, I wondered, will Morris tackle the complexity of 1967 woven into the subtext of Sgt. Pepper - the war, the protests, the drugs, the longing for peace, the danger at the heart of the music? Morris was only eleven years old when Sgt. Pepper burst on the scene, but he grew up here in Seattle, where war protesters were very active and where, in 1970, the University of Washington erupted into protests against the escalation of the war in Cambodia and the shooting of students at Kent State, prompting 15,000 war protesters to shut down I-5. A kid in middle school was sure to notice all that drama, feel the intensity of the city, the fighting between civilians and police, the rage. But did the turbulence fuse with the Beatles' iconic Sgt. Pepper the way it did in the minds of young adults?
I figured that Morris would capture the joyful, goofy, colorful part - the wild style that the Beatles brought to their album cover - and I was right. The fifteen members of Mark Morris Dance Group who performed at the Moore Theatere were dressed in Elizabeth Kurtzman's fabulously bright costumes that perfectly evoked the era without resorting to nostalgia. Some of the dances were wonderfully witty, like the crazy chorus line that develops to 'When I'm Sixty-four' - starting with one girl, who links arms with a couple of boys, joined by a couple of additional girls, and then more boys, until a line of dancers is strung across the stage repeating a dance pattern that speeds up, fragments, shatters into kaleidoscopic movement, breaks apart, and peters off. Each dancer disappears like a meteor fragment until the first girl, exhausted, finally flings the last boy over her shoulder and marches away. It was Morris at his most hilarious, structured best, delighting the audience not only with its charm but with the complex, syncopated movement that unfolded within the simplicity of a single line.
The energy and technical precision of the dancers was entirely pleasing as they moved through Ethan Iverson's arrangements of seven of the songs from Sgt. Pepper, interspersed with compositions of Iverson's own. It was a clever device that evoked the qualities of the album without slavishly recreating the original music, though Iverson's penchant for jazz seemed a bit far-flung from the Beatles' musical universe. Especially weird and wonderful was the use of the theremin, an electronic feedback instrument that sounds alternately like an invader from outer space and a heartbroken baritone at the bottom of a well.
What was missing, for me, in 'Pepperland' was the sense of originating danger - the tragedy of war that provoked the Beatles' musical protest - their creation of a parallel universe where 'things are getting better all the time' while recognizing that things 'couldn't get no worse.' One dance sequence, to George Harrison's 'Within You Without You' used gestures of falling together in mutual support, with a kind of mudra in the 'thumbs up' position, that succeeded in capturing a dimension of the era - a search for mindfulness that implies the presence of stress without being explicit. The closest 'Pepperland' gets to the worm in the apple is 'A Day in the Life', in which the drudgery of ordinary life is explicit. Dancers doing mundane activities - reading the news, eating breakfast - are sitting in chairs carried aloft by other dancers, as if their reality is so mediated that they don't experience life on the ground. Below them are dancers enacting the English winning a war, a man blowing his brains out - none of it reaching the floating chair people.
While it was a terrific evening of dancing and music - as well as a feast for the eyes - I think my disappointment in 'Pepperland' is based on my knowledge of Morris' body of work. Morris has the ability to express the most complex and challenging ideas through choreography that might otherwise be left to the realm of language or film. Morris can say anything, no matter how difficult or nuanced. I was hoping he would use that tremendous insight to probe the Beatles' great masterpiece - a work that fascinated and enriched my generation while offering a kind of refuge from the frightening and chaotic time in which we grew up. Nevertheless, a certain dimension of Sgt. Pepper was captured - just not the dimension that people of my generation know and love so well.
Thirty years ago in NYC, when hippie clothing style started to come back into vogue, I remember looking at kids on the subway (from my lofty perch as a forty-year-old) and thinking that they got the style just right - the fringes, the headbands, the flowered fabric, the macramé bags - but were missing the essential ingredient of danger. They were in no danger of being drafted, or bashed on the head by a billy club in a protest march, or shot to death on campus waving a peace sign. Without that their style was too orderly, flat, a little shallow. As much as I love the Mark Morris Dance Group and admire their perfections, they looked a little like those neo-hippies on the subway - in need of a touch of danger.
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