Mark Morris Dance Group Celebrates 50 Years of Sgt. Pepper

The Cal Performances co-commission puts dance to some form of the Beatles classics.


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The Mark Morris Dance Group honors the Beatles’ classic in Pepperland.

Photo by Mat Hayward

If you were born, let’s say in the late ’50s, you may have not have been quite old enough to realize the musical revolution of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But you will certainly have taken note of the album’s stunning cover with its 45 individuals. It’s one never seen before or I believe since, and now apparently, a collectors’ item.

The music was one thing, but who had ever heard of putting Karlheinz Stockhausen between Lenny Bruce and W.C. Fields; or Fred Astaire next to Carl Jung? This album image embraced world culture. Mark Morris was born in 1956 and came across the album through his older sisters. His life at the time was taken up with flamenco and Balkan dance.

So when the city of Liverpool asked him to choreograph a piece to Sgt. Pepper for the occasion of the album’s 50th anniversary, he had his doubts, though he loved the songs. Besides, he wanted his dancers to perform to live music. In stepped Ethan Iverson. His The Bad Plus jazz trio has been part of the Mark Morris enterprise for many years.

Iverson is also what might be called an excellent crossover composer, much in tune with European classical, electronic, avant-garde, and world music. For Pepperland, he wrote a score for a chamber orchestra that, most intriguingly, includes a theremin, an instrument that the performer activates without touching it. The music includes some of the album’s most loved songs but is never strictly bound to the original. Iverson’s aim, he has said, is to keep the score “open” and “airy” enough for the choreographer and dancers to enter into it.

Longtime Morris’ designer Elizabeth Kurtzman’s brilliant “kandy-colored-tangerine” costumes, including miniskirts and pants of many lengths, for Pepperland evokes the best of the 1960s—a time of adventure, experimentation, and explosions of honing one’s individuality but also with an odd, comforting sense of community. It was almost as if the painful struggles of many people both in this country and others were happening on a different planet.

In some languages, you send an unpleasant person into Pepperland, a faraway place that has nothing to do with your own reality. Morris’ Pepperland does the opposite: It generously invites you in.

Pepperland, Mark Morris Dance Group, Sept. 28 and 29, 8 p.m.; Sept. 29, 2 p.m.; Sept. 30, 3 p.m.; $50-$150 (subject to change), Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, 510-642-9988, CalPerformances.org.

This report was originally published in our sister publication, the East Bay Monthly.

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