‘Pepperland’ celebrates The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ album through dance, live music

Choreographer Mark Morris, once considered the “bad boy of dance,” is now known for his incredible sense of musicality.

He is so devoted to the music he sets his dances to, he wants his Mark Morris Dance Group only to perform to live music.

That will be the case with “Pepperland,” a production that pays tribute to the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ groundbreaking album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

The piece, first performed in 2017, features six songs from the album, plus six “Pepper’s”-inspired original compositions by Ethan Iverson. It will be performed by a chamber ensemble of voice, soprano saxophone, two keyboards, percussion and a theremin (an instrument played without physical touch.)

Performances are June 19 and 20 at the Durham Performing Arts Center during the American Dance Festival. Morris will lead a post-performance discussion June 20.

The 86th edition of ADF runs through July 20 and features 38 performances by 25 companies and choreographers.

The six songs from the album are “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 Your Without You” and “Penny Lane.”

Morris has said he begins with the music, not the dancing, according to with interview in Playbill. Some have compared him to the heralded Russian-born ballet master George Balanchine, artistic director for more than 35 years of the New York City Ballet.

Morris hails originally from Seattle and took dance classes when he was young in ballet, Eastern European folk dancing and flamenco. In addition to his modern-dance work, he has choreographed for ballet companies, worked in opera and established the White Oak Dance Project in 1990 with ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov. The Mark Morris Dance Group’s permanent home is in Brooklyn.

More than three decades have passed since ADF banned him from the festival for shouting his displeasure during a Twyla Tharp performance. Tharp has been known to use contemporary pop music in her work, including music by Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys, while Morris has tended to set many of his dances to classical works, from Debussy to Bach.

In an email interview with The News & Observer, Morris explained how a dance based on popular music came to the stage.

Q: How did the idea for “Pepperland” originate?

A: The idea for “Pepperland” started at the request of the festival in Liverpool celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1967 release of the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” I took on the project with delight as I was able to hire Ethan Iverson, a great jazz pianist and composer, to arrange and compose music for this piece.

Q: What were your thoughts when the festival in Liverpool approached you?

A: I was very surprised when I was first asked to prepare this, as I am not necessarily the most devoted Beatles fan of all time. However, when I went back and listened to the album, I was very much impressed with its avant-garde point of view and the surprising amount of research that The Beatles had gathered to compose the music.

Q: Your work is known for its musicality, its reliance on classical music and folk dances, your love of Indian instruments, your interest in ballet and opera. Despite experimentation, The Beatles’ album is considered rock ‘n’ roll. How do you square that?

A: Of course, The Beatles album is considered rock ‘n’ roll. That is the type of music that I appreciate, although I never consider it seriously for choreography.

My appreciation of all kinds of dance and music from all over the world is the rule, not the exception. I approached the piece of music as I approach any: through research, close listening and living with the music for a while.


What: Mark Morris Dance Group’s “Pepperland”

When: June 19, 7 p.m.; June 20, 8 p.m. Morris will lead a post-performance discussion June 20. The June 19 show will be followed by ADF Fête at Bay 7 at American Tobacco Campus. A separate ticket for $125 is required.

Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 120 Vivian St., Durham

Tickets: $31 and up

Info: americandancefestival.org

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