Famed choreographer Mark Morris returns to the United Kingdom this Spring with Pepperland, his new production based on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The production, which first premiered at Liverpool’s Sgt. Pepper at 50 festival in 2017, takes the well-known songs as its start point but then expands the music and dance into unexpected directions with new composition and choreography.
Pepperland was critically acclaimed when it premiered at the festival but Morris, one of the world’s leading choreographers and artistic director of New York based Mark Morris Dance Group, admits he was unsure about the project when he was first approached.
“It was Sean Doran, who was curating the festival and who I’ve known for a very long time, who asked me. I thought it was very surprising because it was kind of short notice and it’s not a project I would have thought of on my own. I took some time to think about and decided there was enough interesting information and potential excitement to go ahead with it.”
Morris was determined to give audiences something unexpected but he did admit to some nervousness about how the interpretation would be received in the Beatles’ home city.
“Every single person who lives in Greater Liverpool is related to or went to school with one of the Beatles so they are all experts in all things Beatles,” he laughs. “I was ‘I sure hope they like it – because if not I’ll hear about it!’
“I had no clue if it was going to work or not. We put it together very quickly because it was added onto all the work we already do all of the time – touring, rehearsing, performing – and then we added on this project.
“And we were like ‘Can we get this done in time? Can we get the rights to the music and choreograph and compose and rehearse and design all this in the very short time we have?’ So I was very relieved to have finished it in time to perform it and then was doubly happy that it was successful.
“But if they had wanted a trip down memory lane by an English person then they wouldn’t have asked me! That’s not the kind of stuff I do. I think Sean knew what he was getting into when he asked me.”
There was an element of personal memory for Morris though – as he actually saw the Beatles performing live.
“It was the last tour before they stopped touring. I lived in Seattle and it was about 1966, I was like ten, and I saw them with my sisters and a bunch of their friends and it was a screaming nightmare! I knew their music from the radio and went with my sisters thinking it would be fun – but it wasn’t! It was crazy. I think they stopped touring because nobody was listening to them, they were all too busy screaming!”
But a year later the Beatles released the iconic Sgt Pepper – an album which Morris found fascinating to take as inspiration.
“This album was never meant to be performed which is interesting,” he says. “It was unperformable – and that was one of the reasons I chose to do it. I only work with live music, I wouldn’t dream of working with recorded music, so it had to be a completely different take on the album.
“It was the first of its kind – it’s fabulous and very varied with a short attention span. The Beatles were very young and they were thinking ‘let’s try out this and this’. It’s a shopping trip of a composition – there’s stuff from every aisle.”
And, while the Beatles’ music is its springboard, Morris says audience members don’t need to be Beatles fans to enjoy the show.
“How someone feels personally about the Beatles’ music might make a difference to the individual but my catchphrase is that ‘this piece is for people who love or hate the Beatles’ – I figure that covers a lot of people right there! And then there’s some others in-between who I hope will come and see it.
“And they’ll be surprised by it. If you are going for a tribute show with a cover band playing Beatles hits that you can sing along with – that’s not going to happen. You can do that afterwards in a bar! This show is fully rooted in the interesting and surprising and radical music of this particular album but also that period of popular music in general.
“Nobody else would create this kind of treatment of this album except for me and Ethan and my company. It’s one of a kind and I promise it’s really fun and interesting and entertaining and beautiful – and a bunch of other things!”
Mark Morris is celebrated for his ground-breaking choreography in the dance community, and has collaborated with Pepperland composer Ethan Iverson for almost twenty years. He has run the Mark Morris Dance Group since 1980 and will soon celebrate 40 years with the company.