BREVIEW: Pepperland @ Hippodrome 26.03.19

Words by Helen Knott / Production pics from Mat Hayward

Renowned US choreographer Mark Morris, often praised for the musicality of his company’s work, appears to be a good match for a dance reimagining of the much-loved Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

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His piece, Pepperland premiered in Liverpool back in 2017, as part of a festival marking the 50th anniversary of the record’s release. Morris may have been tempted to create a straight-forward homage to the album to please a hometown crowd, but as I sit at the front of a packed Birmingham Hippodrome tonight I’m expecting a piece that’s much more nuanced and interesting than that.

The opening title track sets the scene. The dancers wear vibrant, 60s-inspired costumes, but the music itself, performed by a wonderful seven-piece live band, is a little off-kilter. It’s like Sgt. Pepper’s from a parallel universe, one where some theremin playfully pops up and it totally works. Morris partnered with long-time collaborator Ethan Iverson (performing with the band tonight, on piano) to create a score inspired by the classic album. So, there are familiar re-workings of Beatles songs, mixed with some original compositions inspired by some of the album’s classical influences.

‘When I’m Sixty Four’ is another early highlight. This is a jerky, music hall take on the song. It keeps changing tempo, and it almost feels like the instruments are all playing different time signatures. You’re waiting for it to fall apart at any moment, a little like watching an elderly person struggling to get up the stairs. Dancers in pairs act out movements inspired by the lyrics, which are so familiar that they don’t need to be sung. The final moments of the song, with a female dancer carrying a male dancer off the stage, raises a chuckle with the audience. We’re enjoying ourselves.

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At the heart of the evening, both literally and thematically, is George Harrison’s ‘Within You, Without You’. As a dancer meditates in the middle of the stage, the rest of the company dances around him, lifting each other to an emotional climax. The meditator eventually rises, perhaps enlightened, and the company starts echoing his movements. As the lyrics spell out, “the time (has) come when you see we’re all one,” he’s arisen from isolation to be part of a bigger ideology.

As we move towards the end of Pepperland, we’re treated to an unexpected version of ‘Penny Lane’. Unexpected because ‘Penny Lane’ doesn’t actually feature on the album (though, apparently it was recorded in the same sessions) and because it’s musically reworked, with theremin and harpsichord bringing out new dynamics and intensity, while the dance itself is largely limited to an interpretation of the lyrics.

‘A Day in the Life’ is treated in a similar way, the theremin spookily and expressively carries much of the melody while the dancers act out the familiar lyrics of a car crash and the English Army winning the war. When the vocals eventually come in for the “Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head” section, that’s exactly what the dancers simultaneously do. This cleverly conveys the mindlessness of a morning routine, though literal interpretations of the lyrics feel slightly overused in the Beatles parts of the score.

Pepperland may not be one for the Beatles purists. It messes around with the track order, adds in a song that was never on the album, and juxtaposes it all with new compositions that are more classical than pop. A jukebox musical it isn’t. But, in doing so, this hour-long piece presents plenty of light and shade, plenty of fresh musical takes on the album, all while staying true to its themes and the ambition of its vision.

The reprise of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ ends what is, of course, intended to be a celebration of this famous album. There’s handclapping, brass, and lots of energy. “We hope that you have enjoyed the show”. We certainly did. As the famous last chord fades and we walk out into the night, it’s like waking up from a colourful Beatles dreamworld.

For more on Mark Morris Dance Company and Pepperland, visit www.markmorrisdancegroup.org/the-dance-group/works/2018-2019-Season/Pepperland

For more from Birmingham Hippodrome, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com

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NOT NORMAL – NOT OK is a campaign to encourage safety and respect within live music venues, and to combat the culture of sexual assault and aggression – from dance floor to dressing room.

To learn more about the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK campaign, click here. To sign up and join the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK campaign, click here.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this feature – or if you want to report an act of sexual aggression, abuse, or assault – click here for information via the ‘Help & Support’ page on the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK website.

BPREVIEW: Pepperland @ Birmingham Hippodrome 26-27.03.19

Words by Helen Knott / Production pics by Mat Hayward

Choreographer Mark Morris presents Pepperland, his take on The Beatle’s classic album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, at Birmingham Hippodrome on 26th and 27th March.

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Tickets are £15-£29.50 (concessions are available) from Birmingham Hippodrome’s website. For direct show information, including venue details and links to online ticket sales, click here.

Pepperland premiered in Liverpool back in 2017, as part of a festival marking the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper. Since then, Mark Morris Dance Company has performed the show around the world. It has picked up glowing reviews wherever it goes, with The Telegraph awarding it five stars and gushing that it’s a ‘truly joyous, celebratory work of art… a brilliant homage to one of the great rock albums’.

Indeed, it’s a tough ask to pay ‘homage’ to one of the best-loved albums of all time, while presenting a fresh take on something that is so familiar to so many of us. And Sgt. Pepper is a notoriously eclectic album, juxtaposing songs influenced by India with twee pop and with the pioneering techniques of album closer ‘A Day in the Life’. Some unpicking and careful thought is needed to make a cohesive piece of dance based on these raw materials.

It’s a challenge that Mark Morris, a choreographer often praised for his musicality, is uniquely placed to rise to. The New York Times describes Morris as ‘the most successful and influential choreographer alive, and indisputably the most musical’, and his long and varied career has seen him choreograph work in a wide range of different styles, including ballet, contemporary and even to accompany country and western music. Morris is an innovative, and sometimes even controversial, figure.

In Pepperland, instead of taking the seemingly straightforward route of creating a piece of dance to accompany the original Beatles tracks, Morris works with long-time collaborator Ethan Iverson to create a score inspired by the album. So, you’ll hear a group of live musicians play new arrangements of songs from the record – including ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, ‘A Day in the Life’, ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, ‘Within You Without You’, and ‘Penny Lane’, mixed with some original compositions inspired by the album.

If the glowing reviews are to be believed, Pepperland is set to be a joyful, fun celebration of one of The Beatles’ best albums. How exactly will this masterwork of 1960’s pop spark the imagination of one of the best choreographers of our generation? Birmingham will get it’s chance to find out on at the Hippodrome on the 26th and 27th March.

Pepperland runs the Birmingham Hippodrome on Tuesday 26th and Wednesday 27th March. For more information, including venue details and links to online ticket sales, visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com/calendar/pepperland

For more on Mark Morris Dance Company and Pepperland, visit www.markmorrisdancegroup.org/the-dance-group/works/2018-2019-Season/Pepperland

For more from Birmingham Hippodrome, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com

________

NOT NORMAL – NOT OK is a campaign to encourage safety and respect within live music venues, and to combat the culture of sexual assault and aggression – from dance floor to dressing room.

To learn more about the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK campaign, click here. To sign up and join the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK campaign, click here.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this feature – or if you want to report an act of sexual aggression, abuse, or assault – click here for information via the ‘Help & Support’ page on the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK website.

BREVIEW: MK ULTRA @ The Patrick Centre 21.09.18

MK ULTRA - Rosie Kay Dance Company / By Brian Slater

Words by Charlotte Heap / Pics by Brian Slater – courtesy of Rosie Kay Dance Company

It is eighteen months since I reviewed the world premiere of Rosie Kay’s MK ULTRA: we were ‘steeped in alternative facts’ then – and now? Some might say we are stewing in a surreal, post-fact society.

Kay, as artistic director, has spent time reshaping the narrative of this psychedelic trip: stripping out surplus conspiracies and focusing on her favourite: the seemingly far-fetched notion that the CIA’s brainwashing programme, for which the show is named, did not stop in the 1960s but continued covertly to create malfunctioning pop star puppets like Britney Spears and Justin Bieber.

MK ULTRA - Rosie Kay Dance Company / By Brian Slater

Shining a searchlight on society’s obsession with symbolism, hypersexuality and the Illuminati, the show is starkly staged with a high gloss floor reflecting kaleidoscopic projections and the sinuous synchronicity of the dancers. An unsettling, blinking all-seeing eye watches over the audience as we are spun through the story of a star being conditioned, and battling against, a government programme of mind control. Kay’s combination of daring dance, slick visuals and pulsing beats pull us down the rabbit hole with her.

Rosie Kay Dance Company (RKCD) choreography is challenging for both dancer and audience. Familiar moves, such as Michael Jackson’s iconic crotch grab and the ubiquitous twerking of modern music videos, are distorted and developed. The dancers embody the torturous puppet-making process: from the frenetic and, at times, frantic to the sometimes grotesquely sexual, we are forced to confront the conspiracy head on.

The seven dancers, clad in butterfly colours and conspiracy symbols, achieve stunning synergy at times. The solos, almost MTV moments, are intimate and unsettling insights into a visceral struggle for free will.  This is clever choreography: it is as hypnotising as it is uncomfortable to watch. Intercut with images of a fragile Britney Spears, it feels voyeuristic to the viewer. Here is the rise and demise of the pop star: like a car crash, it is impossible to look away.

MK ULTRA - Rosie Kay Dance Company / By Brian SlaterThe reworking of the original show has focused the narrative on an individual. Kay felt that as a society, we are now au fait with even far-fetched conspiracy theories, and this enabled her to explore more deeply the supposed collaboration between Walt Disney and the CIA. Symbols are sewn in to the fabric of the show (and costumes): subtlety is not the approach but it needn’t be. The show is stunning to watch but the conspiracy (to me, a cynic) is laughable. The original show cleverly intercut snippets of young Brummies discussing the Illuminati which acted as startling reminder of the prevalence, and passivity, of believers. This show is slicker, with a more defined story: split into the traditional acts of a play, with a documentary-style narrator, it seems to have lost some of its direct challenge to the audience.

MK ULTRA is the final, political episode in an RKCD trilogy – previous installments 5 Soldiers and There is Hope (covering war and religion respectively) demonstrate Kay’s commitment to creating dance that covers unusual but important ground. Societal shifts in the last 18 months (President Trump now makes an unwelcome appearance in the show’s visuals) provide a more sinister backdrop for the story. As a standalone show, it is impactful and impressive – a dark twisted fantasy.

Having seen the original iteration, however, I’m left lamenting the removal of some of the societal context which challenged the viewer to consider their own role in a post-truth world. The individual narrative gives the viewer the opportunity to distance themselves from the cautionary tale: we may be brainwashed, but we’ll never be pop stars. So why does it matter?

MK ULTRA (official trailer) – Rosie Kay Dance Company

Rosie Kay Dance Company are currently touring MK ULTRA across the UK, until their finale show at the LEAP Festival in Liverpool on 10th November. For full tour details, visit www.mkultra.dance/tour-info 

For more on MK Ultra, visit www.mkultra.dance 

For more on Rosie Kay Dance Company, visit www.rosiekay.co.uk 

For more from The Patrick Centre and the wider Hippodrome programme, visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com

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NOT NORMAL – NOT OK is a campaign to encourage safety and respect within live music venues, and to combat the culture of sexual assault and aggression – from dance floor to dressing room.

To sign up to NOT NORMAL – NOT OK, click here. To know more about the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK sticker campaign, click here.