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Pop songs invaded Boston dance stages in 2019

Members of Mark Morris Dance Group perform "Pepperland."
Members of Mark Morris Dance Group perform "Pepperland."Mat Hayward

What do the pop songs “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Hallelujah” have in common? Well, they were written by two of the great songwriters of the 20th century, Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen. And both were also heard on Boston dance stages in 2019: “When I’m Sixty-Four” and other Beatles songs in Mark Morris Dance Group’s “Pepperland” at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre in February, and “Hallelujah” as part of Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal’s “Dance Me: Music of Leonard Cohen” at the Cutler Emerson Majestic Theatre in October.

The year 2019 was, in fact, the Year of Pop Songs on Boston dance stages. Nederlands Dans Theater 2 did “SH-BOOM” to a medley of vocal numbers from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Monica Bill Barnes and Elisa Clark hoofed to “Love Me Tender,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Any Way You Want It,” “Smile,” and “I’m All Out of Love.” Batsheva gave us The Notorious B.I.G. and Rage Against the Machine and threw in some Bollywood film music. The three women of Claudia Rankine and Will Rawls’s “What Remains” spoofed Jidenna’s “Classic Man”; BodyTraffic boogied to Peggy Lee. Even Boston Ballet got into the act, dancing William Forsythe’s “Blake Works I” to compositions by British singer/songwriter James Blake and Forsythe’s “Playlist (EP)” to a pop medley.

But “Pepperland” and “Dance Me” were 2019’s high-profile events, and neither really popped. Of the 12 songs from the Beatles’ iconic “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album, only five — plus “Penny Lane” — made it into “Pepperland,” and they were rearranged by Bad Plus founding member Ethan Iverson, who fleshed out the hourlong show with his own original Beatles-inspired compositions. We didn’t even get to hear the Fab Four sing.

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“When I’m Sixty-Four” was the highlight: done as a larky kickline whose members kicked on counts of four, five, or six, all at the same time (“In between 6 and 4” the program reminded us, “is 5”), it made the dancers look as if they really were 64. Otherwise we got the familiar Morris tropes: the marching, the miming, the running, the skipping, the lifts, the invocations, the repetitions, the canons, the folk dances, the social dances (notably the Charleston). If the familiar tunes hadn’t been there, you’d have hardly known the Beatles had anything to do with it.

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You could argue that the “Sgt. Pepper” lyrics didn’t give Morris much to work with. “Dance Me” had the opposite problem. As with MMDG, we got BJM’s standard issue: jittery acrobatics and gymnastics with lots of whirling, flailing, rolling, wrestling, gesticulating, gyrating, frugging, and high-kicking. It all looked the same from one song to another and from one choreographer (there were three all told) to another. To be fair to BJM, sophisticated lyrics like “I said to Hank Williams, ‘How lonely does it get?’ / Hank Williams hasn’t answered me yet” pretty much defy choreography. But you have to wonder what Cohen would have thought (he approved “Dance Me” in concept but didn’t live to see it finished) of supine women whipping their legs about like the June Taylor Dancers and huge red video lips mouthing the final stanza of “Tower of Song.”

NDT2’s “SH-BOOM” and BodyTraffic’s “A Million Voices,” both program-ending desserts, proved that it’s not hard to set lyrics if your goals are simply humor and entertainment. “SH-BOOM” had a quartet of women in tea-length black dresses hold the stage while the men, usually in white underwear and knee socks, engaged in lovesick wooing. “A Million Voices” concluded with “Is That All There Is?”; the umbrella and the hoop skirt and the martini glass were fun, but I found myself left with the song’s title question.

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I never find myself thinking that when I see Alvin Ailey’s signature piece “Revelations,” which Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater brings to Boston almost every year. The gospel hymns of “Revelations” are not traditional pop; they have a vertical dimension — human to the divine — that pop mostly lacks. But even after 59 years, the image of those gull-winged angels-in-training from “I Been ’Buked” remains hard to shake. They barely move, a reminder that dance doesn’t have to be frenetic to be moving. And though parts of “Revelations” are literal (the runners of “Sinner Man”) and parts are funny (the battling church ladies of “You May Run On”), sections like “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” “Fix Me, Jesus,” and “I Wanna Be Ready” are touchstones in how to convey the mood of a song without simply illustrating the lyrics.

Yet the choreographer who really got it right in 2019 was Forsythe. Maybe that’s because he played off the complexity of ballet movement against the relative simplicity of pop melodies; maybe it’s because he related to the energy of the music and didn’t get too caught up in the words. You couldn’t make out much of Blake’s lyrics, in any case, but the smoky poetry of Chyrstyn Fentroy and Roddy Doble in “The Colour in Anything” became a meditation on the song title. And when 12 Boston Ballet men, their surnames stenciled on the back of their jerseys, strutted their best stuff to the exuberant backbeat of Peven Everett’s “Surely Shorty,” pop music truly became pop dance.

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Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com



Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.