It was 50 years ago today: Choreographing a commemoration of Sgt Pepper

Mark Morris’s Pepperland, a dance celebration of the Beatles album, is coming to Dublin

Mark Morris Dance Group members at the famous Abbey Road zebra crossing in  London, ahead of their performance of  Pepperland in Dublin. Photograph: Elliott From Franks

Mark Morris Dance Group members at the famous Abbey Road zebra crossing in London, ahead of their performance of Pepperland in Dublin. Photograph: Elliott From Franks


When imagining touchstone musical albums, the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band easily comes to mind: quintessential Britain in the swingin’ 1960s with the band in its heydey and rock and roll spreading across the globe. The songs go from joyful to thoughtful at the touch of a record needle, representing the Beatles at their best, smiling in their bright satin suits.

Generations of listeners can belt out Sgt Pepper’s songs on cue, and while some artists have felt strongly enough about them to pay homage with their own creations, others prefer to let such iconic songs stand alone. So when the city of Liverpool asked American choreographer Mark Morris to honour the 50th anniversary of the Sgt Pepper’s album release with a dance, he accepted the commission, but only after careful thought.

“I didn’t know if I wanted to do it, and partly it was because I work only with live music,” says Morris before a show at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, as part of the current Pepperland tour. “In fact, it never occurred to me to use the Beatles at all. I loved Revolver and the White Album. I loved I Wanna Hold Your Hand. But it’s not worship. My feelings about the music aren’t preserved in amber.

“This isn’t autobiographical in any way,” he adds. “ It’s not even biographical of the Beatles or the culture or anything, though there are references of course.”

The Mark Morris Dance Group premiered Pepperland for the album’s anniversary in Liverpool in 2017, using six songs from Sgt Pepper’s as a starting point, as well as Penny Lane, which was originally intended for the LP but ended up on the Beatles’ 1967-70 Blue Album. To adhere to complex copyright restrictions, Morris asked composer Ethan Iverson to re-imagine an original, continuous score for Pepperland, and the result uses saxophone, trombone, piano, keyboard, percussion, theremin and a vocalist. Some tunes are entirely recognisable and others, much less so.

“A lot of American art is a blend of high and low art,” says Iverson. “With this I wanted to make a good piece of American art. You don’t rock out, but it’s not chamber music either.”

Iverson’s musical roots spread wide – from curating a centennial celebration of Thelonious Monk to performing with elder jazz statesman such as Ron Carter. Iverson arranges, composes and performs, and was a founding member of a New York-based collective The Bad Plus. He also writes about jazz for the New Yorker.

When the curtain rises on the upbeat, light-hearted Pepperland, audiences begin a journey celebrating movement and music with very little narrative. Seven live musicians accompany the 17 dancers in interconnected vignettes that flit between the title track and With a Little Help from My Friends, When I’m Sixty Four, Within You Without You, Wilbur Scoville, Penny Lane, and A Day in the Life. Between these tunes Iverson intersperses original composition, and baritone Clinton Curtis and theremin player Rob Schwimmer add unexpected texture to the sound.

The album cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album was originally released in 1967. Photograph: PA/PA Wire
The album cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album was originally released in 1967. Photograph: PA/PA Wire

‘The bad boy of modern dance’

Morris’s choreographic style has always straddled classical, modern and some might argue, pedestrian movement; he often places what looks like an everyday walking step, for example, amidst complicated foot patterns and arm gestures. He hires dancers of different heights, backgrounds and body types, which prompted critics in his early days to call these choices a snub to the long-limbed sylphs so common in the dance world. Trends in recent decades have caught up with Morris as more dance companies now feature performers with varying physiques.

Many of his performers have enjoyed lengthy careers with the Mark Morris Dance Group, founded in 1980, which is unusual in a profession that favours young talent. Sam Black joined the company in 2007 after seeing the group perform in his hometown, auditioning more than once before being offered a spot. Since its inception it has operated with no principal dancers or soloists, which is more egalitarian than the structure of a typical ballet company.

“Mark looks for generous performers who don’t have a lot of affectation,” Black says. “Sure, we might all be charming and funny but there’s not room for big personalities.”

Other than Morris, of course. Known as “the bad boy of modern dance” for much of his career, Morris began grabbing headlines in 1988 while directing the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels for three years. There he created stunning dances that solidified his reputation as a choreographer, including what is now considered his signature work, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, a full-length dance staging of Handel’s oratorio. Yet he still generated maximum shock value during press interviews and post-show discussions with his long curly locks, often bare feet and willingness to say almost anything regardless of its political correctness.

That persona may have softened, but Morris still insists on collaborating with artists in all genres that meld with his own deeply considered yet accessible vision. His musical choices have ranged from Vivaldi and Mozart to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

In 1990 Morris started a separate White Oak Dance Project with dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, and has gone on to make ballets for Paris Opera Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and Boston Ballet as well as directing and choreographing for the Metropolitan Opera, English National Opera and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, among many others. Known as an innately musical choreographer, it is not uncommon for him to walk into a rehearsal, score in hand, referring to it while crafting his steps.

After a 15-year hiatus from performing in Dublin, Morris is keen to reconnect with Irish audiences through Pepperland.

“It’s an hour of good music and dancing,” he says. “My dancers are absolutely fluent in anything dance related. They are musically brilliant, more versatile and more adaptable and open minded than any other company I know. It’s not a competition, but the choreo-musical point of view is a very deep one. I have very very fine artists in the pit, every one of the musicians is a brilliant soloist, and the same for my dancers.”

For anyone new to Morris and his work, he may come across as, well, slightly immodest.

He is proud of his repertoire and rightly so, as it packs houses; he receives commissions while similar arts organisations in the United States are shutting their doors due to lack of funding and shrinking audiences. His enthusiasm extends to the Mark Morris Dance Center, his school in Brooklyn which is comprised of seven rehearsal studios (soon to be 10), including one that is theatre-sized.

‘Dance is for everyone’

Hundreds of students of all ages attend classes there every week, learning everything from hip hop to participating in Dance for Parkinson’s, the centre’s flagship programme. When the Mark Morris Dance Group comes to Dublin, some of the company members will teach a Dance for Over 55s class, as well as a Dance for Parkinson’s class at Dance House, both on April 29th.

The motto on his t-shirts read “Dance is for everyone” and his entire operation embodies that. Generations of arts patrons have backed this vision, from collaborators such as Baryshnikov, cellist Yo Yo Ma and designer Isaac Mizrahi, to the anonymous donors who contribute seven-figure sums to his company’s endowment.

Morris’s long-time executive director Nancy Umanoff is helping to secure his legacy with the a ground-breaking initiative called Dances for the Future, inspired by the Scottish artist Katie Paterson and her Future Library. Umanoff discovered that a forest has been planted in Norway which will be used to print books 100 years from now that are currently being written and time-capsuled until 2114. A printing press, with instructions, is also being preserved for this purpose. Margaret Atwood wrote the first book in 2014 which will not be revealed until 2114.

In a similar vein, Morris will create a new dance every year which will only be seen posthumously. He will choreograph and teach them to his chosen dancers as if it were going to be presented on stage, but instead it will be recorded and archived for the future. It’s the kind of forward-thinking vision no one else in the dance world has yet attempted, and which sidesteps emotional and legal quagmires that have ensnared other choreographers’ estates, such as Martha Graham’s.

Morris’s first reaction to the Future Project?

“What, are you kidding? That’s the grimmest, most morbid thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” he laughs. “And it’s a great idea because suddenly people imagine they’re immortal. Then as you get older you realise time’s not getting any longer.”

He has already begun his first dance in the Future Project, set to Scarlatti keyboard sonatas. And while something bittersweet lingers over the conversation about how and when these dances will actually be seen, he draws the conversation back to what he loves – creating dances, especially the one touring at the moment.

“In Pepperland we are treating it like we would treat any other music,” Morris explains. “It’s entirely serious as a composition. It’s not a send up, or a parody, or anything like that. It’s not the church of the Beatles. It’s also not a trigger to make people of a certain age start crying, or dress up funny in bell bottoms that don’t fit anymore. Although that might happen, and that’s ok too.”

Pepperland melds iconic music with choreography from this iconic dance-maker in a way that Morris hopes has widespread appeal.

“My deepest interest is of course live music, live dance, live audience. All at the same time. Not everyone feels welcome or can afford it, so we do what we can to help with that.”

Mark Morris Dance Group performs Pepperland at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on April 30th and May 1st. Classes for dancers over 55 and Dance for Parkinson’s take place at DanceHouse, Liberty Corner, Foley Street, Dublin 1, on April 29th

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