Mark Morris’ Pepperland successfully launched Liverpool’s Sgt Pepper at 50 Festival in 2017 and this year it tours the UK, bringing its unique take on the classic album to new audiences.
Inspired by the Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the production 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.”
The piece was actually commissioned on a slight misunderstanding because Doran was asking a number of artists to create pieces for individual tracks from the album – but Morris thought he was choreographing for the entire album.
“I didn’t understand that,” recalls Morris. “I thought he meant the whole thing but then I learned later that he meant different tracks for different people but by then Ethan and I had decided on about six numbers to do. It wouldn’t have been that interesting for me to do just one song.”
Working with composer Ethan Iverson, Morris created a piece with new arrangements of Beatles classics 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 as well as original composition.
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 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.”
Armed with the album, long-term collaborators Morris and Iverson set about creating a show which would take the Beatles’ music and give it a new lease of life. Morris, who launched MMDG in 1980 and has created nearly 150 works for the company, ensures live music is at the heart of his work so it was imperative they didn’t just reproduce the album.
“I do a lot of research on any score and Ethan also loves that so we went deeper into the history and the background of the influences,” recalls Morris. “Also the album itself is only 40 minutes long so we substantiated it with the music that Ethan wrote. So there’s new music within it and new ideas about music.
“The cultural research we did meant we came up with this particular show. For example there’s the Indian music on Sgt Pepper. That album may have been the first time I heard Hindustani influences in music when I think about it. I was listening to a lot of different music from very young but that may be the first kind of semi-Indian thing I heard.”
Pepperland features a chamber music ensemble of voice, theremin, soprano sax, trombone and two keyboards. The production has been described as ‘witty’, ‘humorous’, ‘joyous’ and ‘eccentric’. And its sixties-influenced brightly coloured costumes created by Elizabeth Kurtzman ensure it’s an eye-catching tribute to the period in which the Beatles became international pop idols.
Since being performed in Liverpool nearly two years ago, Pepperland has been staged across the United States of America and in Canada. And this spring it comes to the UK and Ireland on a six-week tour presented by Dance Consortium, a group of 20 British theatres which aim to stage and promote international contemporary dance.
Beginning in mid-March, the tour takes in London, Birmingham, Salford, Bradford, Edinburgh, Canterbury, Cardiff, Plymouth, Southampton, Norwich, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Dublin.
Since its creation, Morris says Pepperland has needed little revision.
“I’ve made a couple of minor changes with things I wasn’t quite happy with but other than that it’s the same piece. I’ve recast it when we are performing it for the six weeks of the tour so dancers can swing in and out of it to make it less pressured on individuals.”
Morris has been hailed as the ‘most successful and influential choreographer alive and indisputably the most musical’ by the New York Times. From 1988 to 1991, he was Director of Dance at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels and in 1990 he founded the White Oak Dance Project with dancer, actor and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov.
He has created works for more than 20 ballet companies worldwide and directed and choreographed productions for The Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, English National Opera and The Royal Opera, among others. With a career spanning 40 years and numerous tours of the UK, he has built up a firm following this side of the Atlantic.
“We’ve been going to Britain for more than 30 years and my work is popular there. I’ve been going there for ever and I like it. We haven’t been for a long tour around the Isles for about five years so we’re looking forward to performing Pepperland there.”
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!”