Mark Morris
Mark Morris. Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan

Mark Morris’ Moment

Dance maverick Mark Morris on his smash-hit “Pepperland”

Much to his amazement, Mark Morris, once hailed by the New York Times as “the most successful and influential choreographer alive, and indisputably the most musical,” has a global hit on his hands with “Pepperland.” A groundbreaking dance tribute to the 50th anniversary of The Beatles iconic album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, the evening-length work, which was commissioned by the City of Liverpool in 2017 and has toured to rapturous audiences ever since, arrives at Segerstrom Center for the Arts June 14 for three performances.

“There’s no end in sight,” said Morris by phone from his office in Mark Morris Dance Center, the permanent headquarters of his eponymous troupe since the building opened in 2001 in Brooklyn. “We just did a million shows and I’m worried that I’m just going to be doing album covers. It was a surprise success and I’m happy with it, but I was taken aback that it was such a big deal. Hooray! I’m not complaining.”

That’s just Morris, 62, being Morris. Ironic, mordantly witty and possessed with a keen intelligence that could put a Mensa member to shame, the choreographer has never been one to mince words. Since founding Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980, he has made more than 180 works, always insisting upon using live music, with the New Yorker describing him as, “undeviating in his devotion to music.” Indeed, the dancemaker, who has also directed numerous music festivals and operas, has not only collaborated with some of the world’s most elite performers, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax, but in 1996 he also created the MMDG Music Ensemble.

Dictating and driving the choreography, Morris’s musical settings have included Handel, Schumann, Monteverdi, Mozart and the list goes on. How then would Morris handle some of rock’s most revered tunes, including “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Within You Without You” and “With A Little Help From My Friends?” And perhaps even more importantly, was Mark Morris even a fan of the mind-altering music that was first released in May, 1967?

“It’s not that I hated it,” said Morris, a MacArthur Fellow who has fistfuls of honorary degrees in addition to numerous other awards, including the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement. “But I’m not like a groupie or a crazy fanatic. You know all the songs, because you couldn’t not know all the songs.

“They wrote great stuff,” he added, “and some stuff you’re sick of, but they were brilliant and they changed everything and I changed everything in this piece, so it’s not a nostalgia number. The music is radically adapted and I guarantee that it’s nothing you’ve ever seen or heard before.”

Pepperland
Mark Morris Dance Group in “Pepperland.” Photograph by Gareth Jones

In fact, Seattle-born Morris, while doing research for “Pepperland,” recalled that he had been taken to see the Beatles at the Seattle Center Coliseum in 1966, in what turned out to be one of the Fab Four’s last concerts of their final tour. “Nobody was listening to the music and they were all screaming. It was only screaming. I was one of a few gentlemen—okay, I was 10—but it was exciting, I guess. The screaming was the reason for them giving up live gigs.”

Morris pointed out that when he returned to the album after such a long absence, he realized that “it’s short and sort of fragmented. It’s 45 minutes and I remember that final chord being an hour long. ‘Oh, my god,’ I thought, ‘this is so radical.’ It was a very new idea at the time, and in addition to [The Beach Boys] “Pet Sounds,” those were the first, sorry to say, concept albums. This isn’t a concept. There was so much interesting stuff to play off of—the influences, styles, the technical, the electronical. But I don’t listen to it every night and cry.”

In effect, the score to “Pepperland” is an original, hour-length set of music composed by jazz pianist Ethan Iverson, a longtime Morris collaborator. And while it is interspersed with arrangements of tracks from the album, it also features six original Pepper-inspired pieces composed specifically to showcase Morris’ deep understanding of classical forms, with the instrumentation including soprano sax, trombone, harpsichord, percussion, theremin and baritone.

“We weren’t trying to recreate the album and Ethan was perfectly equipped to deal with that. “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” were originally supposed to be on it,” Morris explained, “but The Beatles were taking a month to make an album instead of an hour—which is what [groups] did back then. Ethan and I decided what songs we loved or hated and he did this wonderful arrangement and also wrote original songs, because we can’t use one drop of Beatles music. One complicated thing was getting the global rights.

“That took a lot of time and a lot of lawyers and negotiating,” added Morris, “but I wasn’t going to kill myself working on something that we’d never get to perform in public. That was a big-time thing. We also added [“Pepperland”] into our schedule because it wasn’t what I was planning to do at that time. We took a few months to work on it—and for me to write it arrange it, cast it—it was exciting and nerve-wracking.”

The 15-dancer cast ranges in age from mid-20s to Lauren Grant, who Morris said has been with him about 20 years. “Lauren is antique,” cracked Morris, “she’s in her 40s and has a child. It’s a young job, but I don’t like to work with teenagers—they’re not interesting enough. I played “Sgt. Pepper” for them and a lot hadn’t heard the whole thing. But playing the whole thing was surprising to them and they were delighted.”

In addition to Morris mining his own memories to create “Pepperland,” when asked if he watched Julie Taymor’s 2007 film, Across the Universe, a love story set against the backdrop of the turbulent ’60s that made use of a number of Beatles tunes, Morris replied sharply, “I accidentally saw that once and thought I was going to die. That wasn’t research, that was horror theater.

“Here’s what I did. [The Beatles] refer to Stockhausen and vaudeville. I looked up the names behind “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” I read things; there was some documentary stuff. I didn’t have to take a university course in all things Beatles. It was a matter of checking things out and comparing songs.

“I love the vaudeville-like thing in “When I’m 64.” Ethan loved that, too,” Morris enthused, “and the way Ethan treated it, it’s a miracle, because it’s basically clarinet and Paul’s voice, but a little bit faster with more vibrato. It’s very obvious when you listen to it in the context of the whole album, they must have said, ‘Let’s throw this at the wall and see what sticks.’ They were young and it was fun.”

Pepperland
Mark Morris Dance Group in “Pepperland.” Photograph by Gareth Jones

Also oodles of fun are Elizabeth Kurtzman’s jewel-colored mod costumes, replete with kaleidoscope-type sunglasses, all in service of realizing the Swinging Sixties. Since Morris has been working with Kurtzman for some 20 years, he knew precisely what he, well, didn’t want.

“First of all, I didn’t want to do memory lane or that dumb fake hippie stuff—and it wasn’t the Vietnam war we were doing. We went directly to Carnaby Street for the mod colors and tailored coats. Everybody looks gorgeous and they like being gorgeous. It’s also visually thrilling, with [Nick Kolin’s] lighting and [Johan Henckens’] reflective set.

“And,” Morris continued, “It’s exactly the right length—you’re in and out in one hour. What show is too short? When people say, ‘I wanted more,’ I say, ‘Really?’ That’s a wonderful opposite of what everybody usually says.”

Morris then added what he called the ‘Woody Allen,’ ‘Catskills’ thing. (“The food was terrible—and the portions—they were so small!”) “Somebody wrote us a letter saying they hated the show. ‘It was too short and we didn’t get our money’s worth. And it was the worst thing I’ve ever seen.’ Who does that?”

In Mark Morris’s world, anything is possible, which leads one to wonder if either Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr, the two remaining Beatles, have caught a “Pepperland” performance.

“Not that I know of,” said Morris. “We were asked that question a lot on the tour in Britain with seven weeks doing “Pepperland,” so I’m sure I would know. Ethan always said that he wouldn’t be surprised if [Paul or Ringo] weren’t that interested in The Beatles music anymore. Isn’t that enough? And we opened this in Liverpool, where every single person is related. They’re great experts in all things Beatles. For it to be a hit there, that was encouraging.”

Morris did admit to once seeing McCartney in a restaurant a few years ago. “I was gay—I am gay —and Paul, I thought he was the cutest thing in the world. I was with some glamorous friends and they were staring. I turned around and it was Sir Paul. [My friends] were paralyzed.”

What haven’t been paralyzing are the reviews, with “Pepperland” garnering raves on both sides of the Pond. The Los Angeles Times’ Mark Swed wrote, “There is also an overall mood of flippancy (of which Morris is also an amusing master) that turns out not to be flippancy at all but a deep investigation in the way movement tells us who we are,” while the Guardian’s Judith Mackrell described the work as feeling “like a gorgeously entertaining and witty homage to its source.”

Yes, critics have certainly been kind to Morris over the years. When New York Times chief dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, retired from the paper in December of last year, he referred to Morris—along with Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Trisha Brown and Twyla Tharp—as one of the “older masters.”

Asked about his thoughts on that—considering he was once known as the “bad boy of modern dance”—Morris replied tartly, “I was never bad. In my opinion, it’s time for me. I’ve been around, I’m not competitive and I don’t think a lot of dance is very interesting. I don’t have to top anybody; I want to make something that I want to watch.”

Forever the maverick—no matter his age—Morris has agreed to make dances now that will not be seen during his lifetime. Dubbed Dances for the Future, this legacy plan was established last year, and it tackles the repertory problem faced by troupes led by a single choreographer after that choreographer is gone.

“I’m putting them in a vault,” quipped Morris. “Not a literal vault, but they’re undercover, sub-rosa. I did a dance last year and I’m about to start a new one in just a few weeks,” adding, “there are different ways I’ve been notating it.”

For now, Morris is still very much alive and kicking. He continues to teach company class at the Center, which also provides rehearsal space for the dance community, outreach programs for children and seniors, and has a school that offers dance classes to student of all ages and abilities. He’s also looking forward to his company’s 40th anniversary next year.

“Hooray,” he said, “that’s my thoughts on my longevity. Everything’s true about getting older. It’s not so horrible and it’s kind of interesting. We’re not doing a giant retrospective, not a survey, but it’ll be a number of performances around New York and touring.”

And after having been one of the world’s hottest, in-demand choreographers for decades, Morris said he’s making very little work for companies other than his own these days. “Ballet has fallen apart, I’m really expensive and I’m not as groovy as it could be. I have a great company who can do anything I want. I do turn stuff down, whether it’s awkward timing or I’m too busy. We have plenty of work, but we need more money [because] we’re not-for-profit and I’m always scraping things together. I can always complain, but we’re in a really good position culturally and artistically. My school’s a giant success and it’s really wonderful.”

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