Ethan Iverson: If you’re here for a Beatles singalong, that’s not going to happen: Photos, Videos

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As their stunning Sgt Pepper dance show tours the UK, Mark Morris and Ethan Iverson recall how they fell for the album’s ‘hokey, vaudeville’ charms. The light-footed Fred Astaire is among the faces on the cover and one song finds a certain Henry the Horse doing the waltz.

But it’s still a leap to imagine a concept dance show based on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Yet here is Minga Prather posing on stage as Astaire, while other dancers represent cover stars Sonny Liston, Shirley Temple and Albert Einstein. In the pit, they’re introduced in a quasi-Gregorian chant by baritone Clinton Curtis, part of a chamber ensemble featuring theremin and soprano sax. Soon the dancers skip through featherlight steps for With a Little Help from My Friends.

Behind them a glittering foil set suggests both a mountain range and crashing waves. This, you may have guessed, is not your average Beatles tribute night.

Pepperland, which premiered at Liverpool’s Sgt Pepper at 50 festival in 2017, is a collaboration between choreographer Mark Morris and composer Ethan Iverson – and one of many productions to have been inspired by the Fab Four. When I meet the pair, on the eve of the show’s UK and Ireland tour, I ask if they ever saw the 1978 Sgt Pepper film starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton as the one and only Mr Billy Shears. “Oh my God, that’s the worst thing in the world,” says Morris with mock horror. How about Julie Taymor’s Beatles fantasia Across the Universe? “It. Is. A. Nightmare,” he declares, drawing out the last word. Then, of course, there’s the hit Vegas show Love, created – Morris grimaces – by “Cirque du fucking Soleil”.

Iverson says there’s “nothing worse” than a Beatles cover project. When he was in the innovative jazz trio The Bad Plus, that idea was occasionally mooted and the band would groan. But unlike the standard Beatles tributes, Pepperland is a step away from nostalgia – it’s not a case, Iverson says, of “we love this record, now we’re going to dance to it”.

Pepperland at the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool, in 2017.
‘The fabulous, tailored outlines of early Carnaby Street’ … Pepperland at the Royal Court theatre, Liverpool, in 2017. Photograph: Robbie Jack

The original proposition, for the Liverpool festival, was that a variety of artists would each create a work inspired by a different track. Judy Chicago made a huge mural for Fixing a Hole while Meow Meow turned Lovely Rita into a procession down Hope Street. “I thought I was supposed to do the whole album,” laughs Morris. “My mistake!”

Morris and Iverson selected a handful of Sgt Pepper songs plus Penny Lane, which was originally intended for the album. Iverson then came up with some bracing arrangements, adding new compositions responding to the album’s “undercurrent of classical music”. The album tracks may be familiar but Iverson’s versions are disarming, not least When I’m Sixty Four, which is performed by a disintegrating line of dancers, as its metre changes from four to six to five. It spelt havoc for the audience trying to clap along at the Liverpool premiere.

The album cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in 1967.
The album cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in 1967. Photograph: Apple Corps Ltd.

The first piece Iverson wrote was a “12-bar, straight-up blues” because “the first thing you hear on the record is a guitar blues riff”. The show opens with a chord that reflects the one heard at the end of the album. Pepperland both starts and finishes with its dancers forming a communal nucleus; it repeatedly explores the notion of an individual isolated from and returning to a core group. The choreography pursues a line from Within You Without You – “We were talking, about the space between us all” – as well as the album’s inclusive spirit and its motif of rock-star seclusion.

One day during rehearsals, the company members lay down in the studio and listened to the album together. The LP is “part of our consciousness,” says Iverson, “a shared language of the human experience. Everyone knows Sgt Pepper’s. ” Morris laughs: “Whether you want to or not!” The show, he says, is for both fans and haters of the album.

Do they remember when they first heard it? “I was an adorable child,” begins Morris with a grin. “Beatlemania was in full swing in the United States. My sisters and all of their friends screamed at the radio at the Beatles. And I thought they were sexy in my nascent queerness.” He saw one of their last American gigs, the year before Sgt Pepper’s release. “I went to the concert and it was only screaming. There wasn’t one note of audible music.” (Pepperland includes a nod to Beatlemania, with the Fab Four chased off stage in an early scene.) As a boy, Morris loved the “hokiness of all the vaudeville stuff” on the album, and the song Within You Without You was his first introduction to Indian instruments, now one of his passions.

Iverson had the LP in high school. “I didn’t listen to a lot of rock,” he remembers. “I was already a jazz person. But there was something about this album that was clearly attractive. Everything lands the right way.”

Iverson says the 60s “British invasion” bands had an impact that “every musician on the planet” had to deal with. “Even the drummers were great! We [America] owned drumming for 60 years. We just knew there weren’t any good drummers anywhere else. Then suddenly there were these great drummers coming from England.” He became intrigued again by the band when he read that, in the 60s, many jazz musicians struggled to play the Beatles because of the phrase lengths. “The song Yesterday is seven bars. They played eight-bar phrases for a century. How do you play seven bars? In terms of basic songwriting I started to become a little more intrigued by the Beatles and a little more forgiving of their great success and the footprint they left on the planet.”

When I talk to Aaron Loux, who has danced in Pepperland and is the rehearsal assistant, he recalls listening to Rubber Soul repeatedly on family car journeys and, as a child, performing a dance to Octopus’s Garden, cartwheeling in a yellow starfish costume. “We had Sgt Pepper in our record collection. I put it on once and it was too weird for me.” Pepperland has reintroduced to him the different textures of the album: “I fell in love with it and got to see it deconstructed in the process.”

At times in Pepperland, the choreography represents a song’s narrative directly, with dancers acting out the lyrics in lieu of a singer. For one number, the ethereal theremin is used as a lead voice. Morris’s steps and Iverson’s notes can feel trippy, as does Johan Henckens’ far-out, crumpled foil set (Morris wanted something sparkly like the pillows in Merce Cunningham’s RainForest from 1968). But Elizabeth Kurtzman’s costumes – yellow slacks, pink socks, orange polo necks – have the clean, elegant lines of the mod movement. On a stage bursting with colour, the dancers’ sunglasses become kaleidoscope eyes. “I wanted it to be mod not hippy,” says Morris. “I didn’t want the destruction of society. It wasn’t the Vietnam war we were doing, it was the fabulous, tailored outlines of early Carnaby Street, when there was still a naughty element to the mods.”

‘Everyone knows Sgt Pepper’s – whether you want to or not!’ … Mark Morris, left, and Ethan Iverson.
‘Everyone knows Sgt Pepper’s – whether you want to or not!’ … Mark Morris, left, and Ethan Iverson. Photograph: Beowulf Sheehan

Like the album, Pepperland is layered, complex and consistently witty, even amid scenes of tender poignancy. Morris’s shows can take around two years to create but this one came together in a hurry. “We had a short window to make it – about three months,” explains Loux. “Ethan was making the music as we were going.” Morris showed the company footage of popular dances from the era – the jerk, mashed potato, frug and boogaloo – as well as earlier social dances such as the Charleston. Loux says that while Morris’s choreography can be very challenging, “the showmanship of ‘look how hard this is’ doesn’t really interest him”. The key for the dancers is to “do what he’s asking you in a way that still looks and feels natural so the audience think they could do it right there with you”.

According to Morris, they were working on the show right until the minute before its premiere at Liverpool’s Royal Court, which “had a little bit of a beer smell to it, like Liverpool herself”. Loux says there were nerves about presenting a Beatles piece to a home crowd but they remember a warm and wild reception. All the same, Morris still tells audiences: “If you’re here for a Beatles singalong, that’s not going to happen.” And save the clapping for the end.

Pepperland is at Sadler’s Wells, London, 20–23 March. Then touring until 1 May.

Pepperland.

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