Triangle Arts and Entertainment – News and Reviews Theatre Dance Music Arts

Mark Morris’ Witty, Charming, Crowd-Pleasing Pepperland Was a Magical Hour of Dance at the American Dance Festival in Durham

ADF presented Mark Morris’ Pepperland on June 19th and 20th at DPAC (photo by Mat Hayward)

It was twenty years ago today
Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play
They’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile

Paul McCartney from the album
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

It was 30 years ago today — actually, longer than that — when Mark Morris was banned from the 1984 American Dance Festival for shouting out during a Twyla Tharp performance piece. Back in the day, Morris was considered the “bad boy of modern dance.” Now in his sixties, he is considered one of our most prolific and beloved American choreographers. Triangle audiences are always eager to experience what the Mark Morris Dance Group brings to ADF. The Durham Performing Arts Center was crowded, but not full, for the Thursday-night performance of Pepperland.

Pepperland was first developed by Mark Morris for a 2017 event held in Liverpool at the Royal Court Theatre to mark the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. On the ADF website, the work is listed as an ADF co-commission. On his website, Morris calls Pepperland, “a comment and a rethinking of this profound cultural artifact with all of the imagination, surprise, humor, and bizarrity intact.”

A witty tone is set from the beginning. The ensemble enters clad in brightly colored 1960’s mod costumes, designed by Elizabeth Kurtzman, and forms a revolving circle, resembling a record on a turntable. Following the opening dance, narrator and vocalist Clinton Curtis introduces characters from the album sleeve as each performer walks on and strikes an appropriate pose.

ADF director Jodee Nimerichter mentioned in her curtain speech that four of the cast members were ADF students, and it is a pleasure to get to see these dancers now at the peak of their careers. During the evening, each dancer gets the opportunity to shine in solos or duets.

ADF presented Mark Morris’ Pepperland on June 19th and 20th at DPAC (photo by Gareth Jones)

If you think this is a Beatles’ sing-along, it is not. The score is a suite by Ethan Iverson, musician, composer, and founding member of The Bad Plus jazz collective. Iverson has created unexpected and imaginative arrangements of six Beatles songs, interspersed with Sergeant Pepper-inspired original compositions. Ethan Iverson plays piano in the show.

Colin Fowler is music director, and plays keyboard while leading the live chamber-music ensemble: Jacob Garchik on trombone, Sam Newsome on soprano saxophone, Vinnie Sperrazza on percussion, and Rob Schwimmer on theremin. The music reflects several eras of jazz as well as the influence of Baroque and Romantic composers. Mark Morris has a strong connection to the power of live music and insists on it for a majority of his work, and also for his dance classes.

Morris’ choreography is well-known for its musicality and understanding of the classical forms in numbers such as “Adagio” and “Allegro.” “Adagio” is inspired by a Lonely Heart advertisement, which is adorably quaint in the modern age of Tinder. An unusual combination of theremin and soprano saxophone created a sweetly quirky mood for a series of short duets themed on couples meeting each other for the first time. An especially memorable pairing was veteran dancer and “Bessie” award winner Lauren Grant and her partner Domingo Estrada, Jr.

The Mark Morris Dance Group often interjects comedy, as fans know if they’ve seen pieces such as The Hard Nut, Morris’ notorious ballet based on The Nutcracker. In “When I’m Sixty-Four,” the cast forms a chorus line for a dance in the style of British Music Hall (the U.K.’s version of Vaudeville). Unexpectedly, part of the accompaniment slides off into another time signature. And then it happens again. Now there are three time counts to the bar — 6, 4, and 5 — played simultaneously. A handful of baffled and exhausted dancers continue to “hoof it” bravely, while the other cast members clap to some beat or other, making the whole thing wildly hilarious.

ADF presented Mark Morris’ Pepperland on June 19th and 20th at DPAC (photo by Gareth Jones)

In true Mark Morris style, there are moments in which the lyrics are interpreted literally — as in “Penny Lane” — but only as a starting point for unexpected variations and pairings. In George Harrison’s contemplative “Within You Without You,” Morris is inspired by the lyric “We were talking about the space between us all,” and uses that theme to create a series of evocative stage pictures and interactions.

Johan Henckens’ set is minimal but effective: a ground row of crumpled reflective material at the base of the upstage cyclorama resembles a far-away mountain range. Nick Kolin’s lighting takes advantage of the cyc and the reflective material to create a variety of colorful effects.

Throughout the evening, Morris has taught us the vocabulary of movement that he has created for Pepperland. By “A Day in the Life,” a theremin nocturne with a vocal descant labeled “apotheosis,” we understand more completely what we have experienced and appreciate the evening all the more.

As Mark Morris has been quoted during a post-show Q&A session, he, unlike some other artists, does not consider “entertainment” to be a dirty word. ADF‘s June 19th and 20th presentation of Pepperland at DPAC is entertainment at its most witty, charming, and aesthetically pleasing. Runtime is 60 minutes: indeed, a magical hour of dance.

ADF presented Mark Morris’ Pepperland on June 19th and 20th at DPAC (photo by Gareth Jones)

SECOND OPINION: June 19th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with composer Ethan Iverson, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”:; June 13th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Linda Haac:; and June 12th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview Byron Woods:

The Mark Morris Dance Group in PEPPERLAND (American Dance Festival, June 19 and 20 in the Durham Performing Arts Center.

SHOW:,, and


2019 SEASON:


BLOG (ADF Blog):

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Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967 Beatles album): (official website), (Encyclopædia Britannica), and (Wikipedia).

Pepperland (2017 work, co-commissioned by ADF): (official website) and (Mark Morris Dance Group).

Mark Morris Dance Group (Brooklyn, NY-based Modern Dance group, founded in 1980): (official website), (Facebook page), (Twitter page), (Wikipedia), and (YouTube channel).


Nancy Rich is a local director/choreographer, with a love for the performing arts and a passion for supporting local artistic work. Nancy and her husband, Rod, own and operate Monkeybravo, a video production company. Nancy is one of the founders of Actors Comedy Lab and participates in local theater as a hired gun, a volunteer and, on very rare occasions, an actor. Nancy recently wrote a series of monologues called The PRINCESS Talks, performed at the 2017 Women’s Theatre Festival. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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Categorised in: A&E Dance Reviews, Dance, Lead Story

2 Responses

  1. Lauren Grant was great in that show. She deserves more accolades than a one line remark.

  2. As it happens, I was a Fellow in ADF’s Critics Conference that summer when Twyla Tharp’s company performed “Sinatra Suite,” the piece you refer to. Mark Morris was at ADF that summer as part of the Young Choreographers and Composers in Residence project, setting a piece on students. He stood up in the back of Page Auditorium during “That’s Life,” as I recall, and shouted “No More Rape” as a protest to what he saw as the mistreatment of women. Then, he ran out of the theater. The now legendary story includes his “being banned” from ADF. My recollection is that it only served to make him famous. The students performed his mesmerizing “Forty Arms, Twenty Necks, One Wreathing” (music by Herschel Garfein) to critical acclaim. He wasn’t, in my recollection, banned. But we all love a good story.