Review: ‘Pepperland’ & Raymonda, etc.

Mark Morris — that most-musical choreographer and sometimes-conductor, who was the 2013 director of the Ojai Music Festival — has shown little interest in setting his dances to rock ’n’ roll or other popular music. So “Pepperland,” seen this weekend at the Segerstrom Center, is an outlier. The piece was a commission, made for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Beatles’ groundbreaking album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and premiered in Liverpool, England.

Pepper land dress rehearsal and press night.Images by Gareth Jones
The cool of “Pepperland.” Photo by Gareth Jones

I enjoyed the 60-minute piece, but then, I am an incurable Morris fan. I love his quirkiness and bountiful invention. The brilliance of Morris’ work, and that of his dancers as its interpreters, lies not in their overt showmanship, but in the compounding power of myriad details that hold together like filigreed iron. And Morris explores rhythmic possibilities in movement better than anyone. Members of the chorus line he created for “When I’m Sixty-Four” were minutely out of sync, one with the other and with the band, and it made my muscles twitch.

The dancers only once rock out with abandon to these infectious tunes, and yes, that’s a disappointment. The rest of the time, Morris plays his dancers like tilting, leaping, and spinning chess pieces, whirling them through geometric designs. Sometimes, he has them acting out the lyrics, sometimes he refers to social upheavals of the 1960s and beyond. One of my favorite parts: sentimental duos for one hetero and two same-sex couples. Brandon Randolph lifted his male partner straight-armed over his head while circling the stage, the two of them splendid sculptures of remarkable, yet understated physical prowess.

The other delights of “Pepperland” are composer Ethan Iverson’s adaptations of six songs from the Beatles album, plus “Penny Lane.” The instrumentals were witty and charming, made for a pit band consisting of a trombone, theremine (whiny and spooky-sounding), saxophone, percussion, piano and a keyboard that sounded like a harpsichord. What a mix! Interspersed among  “Within You Without You,” “A Day in the Life,” and others, were Iverson’s own musical interludes. One is named for Wilbur Scoville, who 100 years ago or so devised a scale to measure the spiciness of peppers. Morris and Iverson are clearly simpatico.

I liked the Technicolor hues of Elizabeth Kurtzman’s work-a-day slacks and jackets, but not so much the business-y look of them. I suppose, though, this was a reference to the everyday Liverpool folk who were an inspiration for the Beatles. That makes sense.

“Pepperland” continues at the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts through Saturday evening, June 15. More information here.

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On a completely different note, I went Thursday night to see American Contemporary Ballet’s latest production, “Variations on Raymonda.” The program included George Balanchine’s “Raymonda Variations,” from 1961, and selections from Marius Petipa’s 19th century ballet, “Raymonda.” Former New York City Ballet soloist Zippora Karz staged the Balanchine, while Doug Fullington taught the dancers the “Raymonda” excerpts. Fullington is a dance historian and musicologist with Pacific Northwest Ballet who helps to restore 19th century ballets using notation and he restaged a gorgeous “Giselle” for PNB.

American Contemporary Ballet performs serviceably, though there were noticeable lapses in technique the evening I went. This is a small, earnest group that has a loyal audience, which enjoys its short excerpt-filled programs, the mostly live music, and the post-show receptions. Artistic director Lincoln Jones selects nontraditional spaces for ACB’s performances, and he sets the chairs inches from the action. We are just too close. It’s a disservice both to the dancers and the pieces themselves. Most of these works need some visual space for us to best appreciate them. And I feel we tend to more easily notice the dancers’ kinetic gaffes. Though buoyant and lively, they are not always up to the physical demands of the repertory.

The musical performances, on the other hand, have been a delight. A quartet featuring Mann-Wen Lo, Strauss Shi, Kevin Hsu and Stella Cho admirably played two interludes featuring music by Alexander Glazunov. This program continues through Sunday, June 16. Click here for more information.

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