Mark Morris’s “Pepperland” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is no exercise in mid 20th-century nostalgia, despite the fact that the show is a tribute to The Beatles’ 1967 album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Delightfully provocative and often laugh-out-loud hilarious, the Mark Morris Dance Group’s latest stop in Washington, D.C., provided a charming evening for both audience members with a longstanding appreciation of performative dance and new, younger viewers in its departure from traditional classical ballet.
Morris clearly intended to make the audience laugh from the start, as dancers strutted into famous poses of 1960s celebrities. For example, as the vocalist drawled into his microphone, “Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Marilyn Monroe,” a bearded dancer popped into the blonde actress’s famous white dress pose. Later announcements of “Shirley Temple,” “Oscar Wilde” and “a statue from John Lennon’s house” aroused similar cackles from the audience. Subsequent moments of hip thrusting, Hercules-esqe arm flexing and jazzercise provided deliciously provocative moments that went against traditional dance routines.
The dances were dynamic and skillfully tailored to the tracks that backed them. Since the show celebrates the more than 50 years since “Sgt. Pepper” was released, the score included arrangements of some of the tracks on the album in addition to six original compositions intended to mimic the style of “Sgt. Pepper.” In one instance, a short combination of goose-stepping kicks, wiggling hips and literal bunny hops was replayed over and over again to a dressed-down rendition of “When I’m Sixty-Four” as dancers filed on and off the stage trying to keep in time with one another.
To heighten the comedy, the piece snowballed until all but one of the performers were clapping in time with the music on the side of the stage to force the lone dancer to keep up with the beat of the music. The comedic acting and dancing combined with the cheery tunes of “When I’m Sixty-Four” made for an experience that was captivating, both visually and auditorily.
The inclusion of “Penny Lane,” though not on the original album, was a welcome addition. Dancers acted out ridiculous scenes including lifting one dancer, clad in a lime-green suit, into the air as he pretended to drive a car, and another in which a dancer pretended to be a barber giving a shave. Such moments surprised the audience by re-interpreting mundane activities with humorous and provocative artistry.
Dances set to “Within You Without You” and “With A Little Help From My Friends,” as well as shorter snippets of music inspired by chords or rhythms from the album, provided creative moments for dance but ultimately ended up blandly repetitive and less inspired than the rest of the show, which was more structured in its storytelling.
The creative choreography was brought to life by the talent of the dancers. Balancing the technical and athletic nature of choreography with the obvious silliness of the show is no easy task, but the cast proved they were up to the challenge. Ballet-inspired movements, like the off-kilter cabriole, were uniform and precise as the dancers jumped diagonally in the air and clapped their legs together. Men and women lifted one another in split leaps reminiscent of grand jetés back and forth across the stage with the pointed feet and rotations of a prima ballerina.
Modern technique got its due with flawless off-balance turns and stylized walks around the stage. Straight faces seamlessly melting into smiles highlighted the dancers’ acting capacity. The clearly professional technique of the performers elevated the show from kitschy comedy to a visually striking show of artistry.
Despite its cleverness, “Pepperland” is not a perfect show. The reinterpretation of the album featuring a single, and often flat, baritone vocalist and theremin did not come close to giving Paul McCartney and Lennon their due. Frequently too quiet for even the moderately-sized Eisenhower Theater, the live performance of iconic songs like “Penny Lane” or “When I’m Sixty-Four” did not match the energy of the dancers.
The lighting also seemed lackluster; a bland pattern of sterile white lights seemed incompatible with this performance at a famed concert hall. The set design was not enough to offset the blandness of the overhead lights. Tinfoil-like mountains that rose to the knee and a scrim that was backlit with a rainbow of colors were the only objects that occupied the set.
Ultimately, tension between an embrace of the strange and maximalist style of The Beatles’ album, best represented by the flamingo-pink suits and chess-board checkered pants, and the more conservative set and lighting choices did not resolve in the evening’s favor.
Despite its imperfections, “Pepperland” is an exciting addition to the dance canon. The unconventional show offers a welcome departure from dances strictly Russian, cold and en pointe. Humor not typically featured in the professional dance world combined with exquisite technique made the evening a must-see for dance fans everywhere.