Review: Mark Morris’ Lonely Hearts Club Band

Posted June 22, 2018 6:02 p.m. EDT

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — When the Beatles’ LP “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” came out in 1967, it opened windows in my 11-year-old mind — and in the minds of millions of others. It made me wonder about the popularization of drug culture, psychedelic design, Indian music, Asian philosophy, radical sociological change and the effects of celebrity. Fifty years later, the waves it caused prompted Mark Morris’ “Pepperland” — and here are all those ideas again.

“Pepperland” had its premiere a year ago in Liverpool, England, the birthplace of the Beatles. Since then, the Mark Morris Dance Group has been touring it. On Thursday, it had its East Coast premiere at the Shubert Theater here as part of the city’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas. It’s a series of brainy notions: lyricism is held in check by cerebration.

The “Pepperland” set, by Johan Henckens, features a rear bank of silver sub-Warhol pillows lighted by Nick Kolin to glow red, gold and other colors. Elizabeth Kurtzman’s costumes conjure up the swinging ‘60s (especially the “Sgt. Pepper” cover) at their most lurid. And here again are the dark glasses and bright tailoring of that era. So “Pepperland” becomes part of that genre of dance theater — like Twyla Tharp’s “Deuce Coupe” (to Beach Boys numbers), Paul Taylor’s “Company B” (Andrews Sisters) and many more — that deliberately depicts and investigates the now historic world that produced the songs.

This production evokes multiple aspects of the “Sgt. Pepper” era, but it also keeps them at a distance from us; there wasn’t a moment when I could surrender to it. This is largely because the Beatles music here comes to us by way of composer Ethan Iverson, whose score, played live by seven musicians (including Iverson), abounds in intellectual but uninviting spinoffs sparked by “Sgt. Pepper” while seldom providing much rhythmic fuel for dance. There’s one singer, Clinton Curtis; many vocal lines are given to the theremin (played by Rob Schimmer), not a Beatles instrument but one whose weird sonority adds its own layer of drama.

Only seven Beatles songs are recognizably revisited (one, “Penny Lane,” was written for “Sgt. Pepper” but released as a single). If you go to “Pepperland” to hear “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “Lovely Rita” and several other classics, you’ll be disappointed. Instead this score homes in on, above all, the mind-expanding “Within You Without You” and “A Day in the Life.” Iverson takes certain musical moments (the way individual vowels in “Day in the Life” turn into obsessive two-note patterns, like slow trills) and does riffs on them.

But Morris, for all his entertaining cleverness, often seems more detached than Iverson. “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” are labored exercises in cutely sentimental comedy. In “A Day in the Life,” the dancers mime individual words or suggestions. This form of gestural enactment has long been a favored device of Morris: a devotee of Indian dance, he’s probably adapted it from the expressional sections (Abhinaya) of the classical genres. Here, however, the actions he sets to “Woke up, fell out of bed, Dragged a comb across my head” and so on, turn the incident into a game of charades.

There are many brief vignettes, several of which Morris iterates during the work, that shrewdly conjure aspects of late-1960s life and art: a lift in which the dancer seems to be driving a car, the chic pop dances of the day, the Buddhist postures that become newly modish, and many more. Morris’ dancers are almost all wonderful. I’ll single out just four: Lesley Garrison (the most vividly suggestive of diverse moods), the duo Dallas McMurray and Noah Vinson (central together to the visions of “Within You Without You”) and the brilliantly precise apprentice Brandon Cournay.

But Laurel Lynch’s overbright array of facial expressions, as if determined to register every point, seemed to capture the overemphatic nature of “Pepperland.” At the Shubert, members of first-night audience — many of whom had arrived in ‘60s attire — were quick with their ovation. Nonetheless, this is a strangely conceptual piece: a work of art that, deconstructing “Sgt. Pepper” after half a century, feels chiefly like a thesis.