A Transcendent Re-Invasion: Mark Morris Dance Group Presents its Kaleidoscopic Interpretation of the Beatles in Pepperland

Photo by Gareth Jones

Next weekend, the Beatles will re-invade Houston in the form of Mark Morris Dance Group’s (MMDG) Pepperland. The Society for the Performing Arts (SPA) invites audiences to experience this kaleidoscopic world for two nights, January 30 and 31, 2020, in the Cullen Theater at the Wortham Center. 

Pepperland premiered in 2017 at Liverpool’s Sgt. Pepper at 50 Festival, which celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the groundbreaking Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Produced in association with a host of organizations, including the American Dance Festival; BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music); The City of Liverpool, England; and The John F. Kennedy Center, Pepperland embodies the collaborative spirit of the Lennon-McCartney material and bids us to acknowledge that we could all be getting better with a little help from our friends. 

Meg Booth, CEO of SPA, generously gave me a few moments to talk about why she brought Pepperland to Space City. Booth began her tenure at SPA in December 2018, following eleven years at the Kennedy Center as its director of dance programming. With her hiring, Houston benefits from her expertise in dance, as she continues the commitment established by SPA over five decades to present exceptional national and international dance companies. From her vantage point in the nation’s capital, Booth lay but a stone’s throw from New York City, the often-declared epicenter of American dance and home of Mark Morris Dance Group. 

If one takes at face value the assessments of Morris’s work over the last forty years (he founded MMDG in 1980), it is a no-brainer to bring this recent creation to Houston. Regarded by many as the American standard-bearer of contemporary choreography, Morris has earned this reputation through a commitment to employing classical idioms — from both dance and music — to comment on contemporary circumstances. In her 1995 book Mark Morris, long-time New Yorker writer Joan Acocella captures the seeming contradiction of his choreography in a chapter titled “Irony and Sincerity,” which explored The Hard Nut (1991), Morris’s interpretation of the Nutcracker, notably also set in the 1960s.  

Booth explains that although Pepperland pays tribute the the Beatles’ 1967 album, it also reflects the highs and lows of the human experience. Through “bright costumes and beautiful movement,” as she describes the performance, MMDG channels the late 1960s spirit of the Beatles’ music. Pepperland captures the intensity of the historical context of the album’s release — civil rights, the Vietnam War, the proliferation of communism — through the juxtaposition of the aesthetic of the psychedelic sixties with the pursuit of meaningful human connection. 

Morris manifests these connections in part through collaboration, in particular with musicians, a hallmark of his work exemplified through the formation of the MMDG Music Ensemble in 1996. As Booth notes, the presence of live music creates a richness and recognition of the multi-disciplinary nature of contemporary dance. Pepperland features a score by pianist and composer Ethan Iverson in which familiar favorites, such as “A Day in the Life” and “When I’m Sixty-Four,” frame original pieces inspired by the album. Iverson renders Sgt. Pepper danceable via live accompaniment that weaves the memorable resonances of the album — organ, harpsichord, trombone — with theremin, voice, and percussion. 

Dance is not often associated with this era of Beatles music. Social dance had shifted, far from the instructive days of “Twist and Shout,” to more introspective and individualized modes of embodiment. Morris and Iverson, however, have succeeded in conjuring a transcendence we may inhabit, characterized by a vocabulary at once pedestrian and technically rigorous. Pepperland thus promises audiences not only nostalgia, but also a vision for the days in our lives in which we not only get by, but thrive.

So, dust off your old brown shoes, pull out the pink paisley duster, and scratch those itchy feet on your way to experience Pepperland. Ticket prices begin at $39 and may be purchased through the SPA website. Additionally, if you find yourself wondering how to fix a hole, SPA’s Behind the Curtain lecture series will welcome Meg Booth in conversation with Mark Morris, artistic director of Mark Morris Dance Group and Stanton Welch AM, artistic director of Houston Ballet, on Wednesday January 29, as they discuss their choreographic processes and collaboration.

About the Author

Jessica Ray Herzogenrath, PhD, researches and writes about American history and dance. She has recently begun a new position as Grant Proposal Developer in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, where she has also taught in both the dance and history departments. Her current manuscript project with University of Illinois Press, Dancing American, tells the stories of the women who promoted dance in education in early-twentieth-century Chicago. In addition, she has been named the 2018-2019 John S. Aubrey Fellow of the Newberry Library (Chicago) for her proposed project: "The Doyenne of Chicago Dance: Ann Barzel as Champion, Collector, and Critic". For more information, visit jessicarayherzogenrath.org

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