Mark Morris’s ‘Pepperland’ Invades the Civic Theatre

Mark Morris is known for rethinking composers, such as Tchaikovsky and Purcell.

In Hard Nut, his irreverent version of The Nutcracker, the old German tale is reset in 1950s suburbia. When it debuted in 1991, Morris danced the party guest who got his leg humped by the Stahlbaums’ horny teen daughter, Louise.

The ancient tragedy Dido and Aeneas becomes a danced opera in The Mark Morris Dance Group’s interpretation. Morris danced the dual role of Dido and the evil Sorceress until 2000. I wrote about the witchy epic and Morris conducting the choir in 2015.

In sharp contrast, Morris and his Brooklyn-based group are touring a vivid Beatles tribute to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band across America, with stops in 30 cities before the end of 2019.

“Pepperland” lands at the Civic Theater for one night in San Diego.  Images by Gareth Jones

“For Pepperland, we do a few stops on every trip,” Morris said from his headquarters in Brooklyn.  “This weekend is Santa Barbara and San Diego, then a big six-week tour of Britain next spring.  We do other shows in between and are most focused on Pepperland now.”

Pepperland features an original score by Ethan Iverson and arrangements of six songs from the album, such as “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Penny Lane,” and “When I’m Sixty-Four.”

Morris had to work with lawyers to get rights to use the songs.

“It involved several different estates and a lot of work,” he said, “and I didn’t start working on it till I confirmed the rights. It’s very complicated.”

Joyful, whimsical, and experimental, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in 1967. A Liverpool festival producer asked Morris to do the celebratory project last year, and he had short notice.

“I listened to The Beatles for decades of course,” Morris said, “but I don’t have a shrine to the Beatles. I realized this was interesting and had many important ideas culturally.

“I won’t perform without live music, and I always choreograph from music. For this project, I had to go to the album. ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ was never intended to be performed live, and it never was. It’s entirely a studio product. They (The Beatles) were done touring and that’s why they released that album. The album is about 42 mins long, so for me to do an hour piece, well, we didn’t chop anything. We augmented it.

“There are probably six songs that are arrangements of music from the album. The rest of the music is an original composition, by Ethan (Iverson) for the ensemble.  Some is sung, some is not.

“It’s not the album. If you want that, go put it on. This is live music and live dancing and much of the music is familiar. Even if the words aren’t sung, the songs are so well known there is bound to be a narrative through-line.”

Costumes in “Pepperland” are by Elizabeth Kurtzman. Images Gareth Jones

Morris says he can read music and barely scrape through piano. He sings, but never studied an instrument seriously.

“I sing and coach, and I read music well,” he said.  “ I’m a musician and my medium is dance. I study and make notes and look at a score and work in the studio with my dancers.

“When I started Pepperland, Ethan and I listened to the recorded album.  But we work from the score, and the music is not just an arrangement.  It’s a true rethinking of the music. I can’t describe the dance.”

A live chamber music ensemble will elaborate on Sgt. Pepper’s through voice, sax, trombone, two keyboards, percussion and theremin.

Pepperland runs about an hour and the Summer of Love meets mod with costumes by Elizabeth Kurtzman in eye-popping shades of tangerine and strawberry.  Pepperland is growing as a cultural event. People want to connect. They tend to dress up for the musical Hamilton and don’t be surprised to see Beatle garb at Pepperland. 

“Pepperland” celebrates The Beatles and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Images by Gareth Jones

“’Hamilton’ had just performed in Seattle,” Morris said, “and we also had a big crowd.

“It’s full on dancing and fabulous, and the music is marvelous. It may be dark outside, but yes, dress in brilliant colors!  It’s not hippie, it’s mod.

“My tired sound bite is, ‘this show is for people who love or hate the Beatles.’”

Along with dancing across America and abroad, MMDG does community outreach. There are nine outreach groups on the website, including a program for people with Parkinson’s Disease.

Open Master Class in San Diego: LJMS Ed Mgr. [email protected]

Dance for PD in San Diego: La Jolla Music Society.

Mark Morris Dance Group’s Pepperland is presented by La Jolla Music Society.  Sat. May 12, 2018. 8:00 pm. at the Civic Theatre.  858-459-3728


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