“It was 20 years ago today . . .” begins the title track to the Beatles’ Grammy Award-winning concept album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But now it has been more than 50 years, the better part of a lifetime of anyone who was there to experience the album when it was released in 1967. How to celebrate the album’s semi-centennial?
Forge a triangular collaboration of the album’s iconic
music with the multiple award-winning Mark Morris Dance Group, and jazz composer
Ethan Iverson, and call it Pepperland. First performed in Liverpool (where
else?) for a 50th anniversary celebration of Sgt. Pepper, this new
dance work is on tour in the United States and will hit the stage of the Moore
Theater of the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College in Hanover NH
on June 28-30, 2018.
The experience is full of the expected nostalgia, including a half-dozen Beatle tunes from the album, with the song “Penny Lane” thrown in as roughly contemporary and part of Liverpool’s biography. The songs may not be exactly as remembered; they have been reimagined and reinterpreted by Iverson (formerly of Bad Plus, now playing with the Billy Hart Quartet). He has stated that he has been an admirer of Sgt Pepper since his high school days, but he doesn’t fawn, tweaking the Beatles’ work in ways that have been described as discordant. Of “With A Little Help from My Friends,” for example, he blogged that “Our version is more vulnerable” than the original. “When I’m 64” is described as “creakily jangled,” and in keeping with the song’s lyrics, “wonderfully arthritic.”
Iverson has also composed original music to add to the mix, delivering what he calls “a fun and danceable score” for Mark Morris’s choreography. Combining rock music with jazz is not as unexpected as it might first appear. Musicologists have recognized the Sgt Pepper album as a sophisticated blend of rock and roll, big band, jazz, blues, and Western and Indian classical music.
Morris’s dancers are costumed in neon 1960s-era fashion. They capture the fun and lightness of the era, with, as some critics have noted, no inclusion of a serious, darker side that existed in tandem with the era’s frivolity. Some dancers’ movements are defined by the text (“dragged a comb across my head”). A series of lifts illustrates how one gets “high with a little help from my friends.” Not all is quite so literal; the choreography ventures into more abstract forms as well.
Morris is known for his penchant for live music at his performances. For this project, Iverson (who was Morris’s musical director for five years) put together an idiosyncratic group of musicians with whom he had always wanted to work. The performance at the Hopkins Center will include a creatively-curated octet with Iverson on piano, and including a soprano sax, trombone, percussion, organ, harpsichord, theremin, plus a vocalist.
How to explain the 1960s to those who did not live
through the times? Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Dartmouth, will be
sharing information from his new course on political and cultural events from
Kennedy’s assassination to Nixon’s resignation on June 28
at 7 pm. Iverson will give a free artist talk on June 29 at 7 pm at the Top of
the Hop, and the Mark Morris dancers will offer a dance master class on
Saturday, June 30 at noon at Dartmouth’s Berry Sports Complex. In addition, the
Hopkins Center is screening three films chosen by Morris to complement
Pepperland: A Hard Day’s Night and Night of the Living Dead. Morris himself
will introduce the third film, Blow-Up.
Pepperland is yet another of works co-commissioned by the Hopkins Center. It is part of SHIFT, a week-long celebration of summer that will include other artistic ventures, such as an imaginatively-staged version of “The Merchant of Venice”(5 different castings of Shylock) by Compagnia de’ Colombari, at Dartmouth’s Bema, an outdoor amphitheater, on June 26 through 28.
For further information, contact the Hopkins Center by phone at 603.646.2422 or at https://hop.dartmouth.edu
(This article was originally written for and published in edited form on Boston's The Arts Fuse, which you can find by clicking here:)
Photos of Pepperland, top by Gareth Jones, middle by Robbie Jack. Photos of Penny Lane and the Beatles via pixabay.com.
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