Mark Morris Dance Group is no stranger to Orange County—Morris and his company have performed many dance works throughout the area. This week, however, they bring a slightly different flavor to the stages of Southern California. With Pepperland, Morris puts himself in the category of almost rock-operatic choreographers; Arpino’s Billboards (set to an all-Prince soundtrack) or even Forsythe’s recent Blake Works I, Morris sets Pepperland to an all-Beatles soundtrack.
Commissioned for Liverpool’s 50th anniversary celebration of the iconic quartet in 2017, Pepperland uses the universal catalogue of Beatles discography to its advantage. Everyone already knows the sounds, the colors, the feelings—so Morris and collaborator Ethan Iverson take advantage, departing from the classic melodies in favor of play.
“The Beatles are like human folklore,” Iverson said. “There was room for me to play and adjust because everyone knows them already.”
After working with Morris to select six Beatles tracks, Iverson (formerly Morris’ live music director, then founding member of jazz trio The Bad Plus) adapted them for the stage.
“It’s like seeing the Wooster Group do Shakespeare,” Iverson continued. “You’re going to get more Wooster Group than Shakespeare, but that’s because Shakespeare has already been canonized. It’s in the audience’s vocabulary. That’s really the ethos of Pepperland—it’s Mark Morris Dance Group that you’re seeing onstage.”
The final setlist for Pepperland: “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,” plus six original pieces inspired by the sounds of the Sgt. Pepper album. Iverson’s working relationship with Morris allowed for some back-and-forth in the creation of Pepperland.
“Ethan was my music director for many years,” Morris said. “I only work with live music—so this collaboration is just…more of itself.”
Iverson and Morris worked through a few drafts and then set the suite—Iverson performs onstage with a stellar cast of musicians. Trombonist Jacob Garchik and soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome stand out, as well as thereminist Rob Schwimmer, whose melodic line replaces several vocal lines.
With a cast of musicians onstage playing Iverson’s arrangements, Pepperland is almost a suite: Morris’ choreographic structure nods at classical Western conventions. The dancers, clothed in the flowerchild color scheme of the ‘60s (designed by Elizabeth Kurtzman), dance an allegro, a scherzo, an adagio, and a blues. While he uses distinctly classical Indian shapes, Morris was adamant in specifying that his work is not derivative. He told me that he does not “pull from” influences but rather researches, then “makes a dance.”
The dance that is Pepperland is very Morris: it’s postmodern dance in jazz shoes and sunglasses, a lively and energetic celebration of the Beatles’ legacy and what it meant to both America and Britain. After having toured Pepperland in both the US and Britain, Morris says the audiences receive it in the same way. In another cycle of political unrest, this evening takes them away from their troubles—just as the Beatles did in their heyday.
“It’s not mired in the horror of politics,” he said. “It’s just a wonderful, beautiful evening of dance.”
Pepperland comes to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts June 14-15, for three shows total. Tickets are available on the Segerstrom website.
For more information on the Mark Morris Dance Group, click here.