British Invasion: Mark Morris' Full-Length Beatles Ballet Hits North America

Mark Morris Dance Group in Pepperland. Photo by Gareth Jones, Courtesy MMDG

When Beatlemania swept through the U.S. in the 1960s, Mark Morris was one of millions of young Americans who fell head over heels for the revolutionary group. "I was not immune," the choreographer says. "My sisters were mad about The Beatles and so was I. At age 12 I had a crush on Paul, of course."

Flash forward 50 years and he is still rocking to the British band, but this time with a new Beatles-inspired dance work his company is touring across North America, starting this month with scheduled stops in Seattle, Toronto, Portland, Oregon, and another 25 cities before the end of 2019.

Pepperland celebrates the semicentennial of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Clocking in at just under an hour, its kaleidoscopic color palette draws direct inspiration from the "tangerine trees and marmalade skies" psychedelizing The Beatles' 1967 record. The dance pays homage to the Fab Four and the Summer of Love with Elizabeth Kurtzman's mod-meets-flower-power costumes, Nick Kolin's trippy lighting design and an original Ethan Iverson score that creatively reimagines six songs on the record. Pepperland is its own pop sensation.

When it debuted in Liverpool as part of the citywide Sgt. Pepper at 50 celebrations in May 2017, Pepperland received rave reviews from the notoriously tough English critics. The Guardian anointed it "a gorgeously entertaining and witty tribute to the classic Beatles album," while The Independent called it "a big, confident blast of color and sound." The praise took Morris aback.

"I really didn't know what to expect," says the now-61-year-old dance artist, who is more internationally known for interpreting Purcell and Bach.

The founding director of the Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Group only blew the dust off his old Beatles records at the request of Liverpool festival producer Sean Doran, who approached him early last year. Morris was reluctant at first to do it.

"I was worried that all Liverpudlians are fierce Beatles experts, ready to defend their great pride in a local product. Which is pretty much true," Morris says. "It was a big project to take on at short notice."

Mark Morris Dance Group in Pepperland. Photo by Gareth Jones, Courtesy MMDG

Besides the time crunch—he had less than four months to create Pepperland—"securing the rights for the use of the songs was quite complicated," Morris says. "The original album was just 40 minutes long. Ethan Iverson jumped in immediately to write the arrangements and a quantity of original music to flesh out the piece to concert length." Talk about "Fixing a Hole."

"Here we are, an American company with strange new musical arrangements, and minimal nostalgia, racing to finish the piece by opening night," Morris reflects. "So, it was a big relief to us that Pepperland was so enthusiastically received. A great surprise."

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