Morris Embraces The Beatles

By Steven Libowitz   |   May 3, 2018
Get in line: Mark Morris and company perform May 10 at the Granada (photo by Stephanie)

Mark Morris got on the phone only a few minutes after the interviewer finished reading the latest about the furor surrounding Michelle Wolf’s controversial set at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Quickly it was apparent – but not surprising – that the choreographer famous for creating dances to curated classical music can be as crude as the comedian. So, might he consider headlining the D.C. banquet if it’s actually held again next year?

“Oh, God, I don’t have the balls for that,” Morris admitted.

So, the comparison might have been something of a stretch, but Morris has long operated way outside the norms of the typically staid world of modern dance. After all, he’s the only choreographer – or for that matter, the only non-composer/conductor – ever to serve as artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival. Which was an experience he described as “fabulous, exciting, flattering – everything I could have hoped for.”

Maybe he’s not ready for political comedy. But Morris has no problem confronting other staid institutions and all sorts of hugely popular icons – such as, most recently, The Beatles, and their groundbreaking 1967 album Sgt. Peppers. The choreographer created a new evening-length work based on the half-century-old classic by request as part of the City of Liverpool’s season-long tribute to the album, which he’s bringing to Santa Barbara for UCSB’s Arts & Lectures series, one of the organizations that co-commissioned the piece.

Yet since nearly all previous interpretations of The Beatles’s music for film or other classical arts have not fared well (sorry, fans, but Across the Universe went too literal), the question arises, however, why would Morris want to take on such an iconic album? He interrupted even before the query part was posed.

“Of course not!” he said “Most of them are terrible. So, why bother?”

Why indeed? What made him think he would be able to surmount that challenge and create something successful and satisfying to him, the critics and audiences?

“I didn’t know it would be good,” he said. “But I knew it wouldn’t be a singalong to ‘When I’m 64’ for all the Baby Boomer drunks in the audience. I could promise that.”

Instead, as with all of Morris’s work, he set about to start at the beginning, going back to the source material, the music itself, and seeing where it led both him and his frequent musical collaborator, Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus (which memorably played several sets at the Ojai Festival and served as the backup band for an evening of karaoke singing led by Morris one of the weekend nights).

“I decided that it was actually an interesting enough project to commission the arrangements and new music, all of which is played live on stage, as long as there were no other rules other than using some of the album’s music, so I could decide everything else,” he explained. “We made up a piece that’s not a nostalgic tribute or a reworking. It refers to the period and of course the music, but it’s all rearranged in complicated ways, with lots of reflections in between.”

Morris and Iverson had their usual process, he said. “He proposed stuff, I proposed stuff. I’d say, ‘I hate that. I never want to hear it again,’ like I do…. We like different things, but we decided together how to do it. The whole point was to perform the music live, and expand it, because he was only rearranging six of the cuts, so he had to write a lot of the interludes, substantiating beyond something that’s just filler. It’s a completely new piece of music.”

Indeed, the sophisticated score features what reviewers have called “boldly idiosyncratic reinventions” of the original songs. The vaudeville rhythms of “When I’m Sixty-Four” vary in time signature from 4/4 to 10/4, for example, while “A Day in the Life” now features haunting piano parts and the theremin, which, paradoxically, is just about the only unusual instrument or sound affect missing from the Beatles’s actual album (though it’s all over the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which spurred the Liverpool lads to stretch for Sgt. Pepper’s.) The onstage seven-piece chamber ensemble includes soprano sax, trombone, two keyboards, and a baritone voice along with the theremin.

Morris’s 15 dancers, dressed in neon-bright suits and miniskirts, bounce around the stage perkily, clearly having jubilant fun with another humor-filled piece from the master choreographer. Critics who caught the piece in Liverpool or elsewhere on the current two-year-long 20-city tour have waxed quixotic about the work, with one even finding hope for a more meaningful life: “Suddenly we’re transported back to that moment, 50 years ago, when it seemed as though Sgt. Pepper could change the world.”

Yet the choreographer wasn’t convinced about Pepperland‘s viability until the show actually opened the festival in Liverpool last year.

“It’s a tough town, and The Beatles are really their only industry,” he explained. “I thought everybody might be waiting with drawn swords. But it wasn’t like that. It was a big, big hit, and a lot of fun, which was a big relief for me. It turned out well. Everybody is happy. Especially me.”

Partly, it seems, because the end product winds up mirroring The Beatles’s original approach – taking what for them was familiar at the time, and experimenting with things – from genres to instruments (sitar) to sound affects (roosters and such) – that were completely unexpected.

“They were in their 20s, just (goofing) off, listening to Stockhausen and the Indian music,” Morris said. “They were thrilled by being young, rich, cute, and successful, like kids in a candy story, taking a little bit of this and some of that. It turned out wonderful. We did the same thing.”

Indeed, while Morris employs the familiar harpsichord and harmonium and, of course, uses the actual Beatles songs as the centerpiece, he also messes things up enough to create a whole new work of art. And just as the Fab Four confounded and delighted their fans with the album, Morris is thrilled that Pepperland is proving equally disorienting.

“Good! There is so much anodyne material being made today, neutral stuff in the whole of American culture right now,” he said. “I’m always thinking, ‘Please, someone, take a stand.’ I think this does. I wasn’t going to do ‘memory lane.’ Whether you like it or not, it’s not mediocre.”

For his next big challenge, Morris is returning to classical music, albeit one of the most popular pieces of chamber music in history – Schubert’s Trout Quintet, which he is choreographing for Lincoln Center this summer.

“That’s why it’s dangerous too” Morris said. “But the Trout is also far less predictable than it sounds. When you study it, you realize that Schubert broke every rule. There are tricks everywhere. It’s incredibly outside the typical structure. He does these big weird crimes against composition, so it’s much more complicated than I thought. And so beautiful.”

Of course, that brings the inherent risk that, as with The Beatles, people are going to be disappointed Morris’s vision doesn’t match the one in their heads.

“Yeah, it’s like choreographing ‘Happy Birthday,’ or something else overly familiar,” he said. “That’s the danger. People come back with, “Oh God, that’s not at all what I imagined.’ And I think, ‘Fine. Make up your own f***ing dance.’”

(Mark Morris Dance Group performs Pepperland: Sgt. Pepper at 50 at 8 pm next Thursday, May 10, at The Granada Theatre, 1214 State Street. Tickets cost $40 to $70. Call 899-2222 or Members of the company will also conduct a Community Dance Class from 5:30 to 7:30 pm on Wednesday, May 9, at Gustafson Dance, 2285 Las Positas Road. Call 563-3262 to register. Observers are welcome.)

Mirthful Montecitans at San Marcos

Riley Berris, the Montecito-raised (MUS alum) thespian who returned to Santa Barbara a few years ago to take over the theater program at San Marcos High School following the retirement of three-decades-plus veteran David Holmes, is herself moving on to form her own production company. But not before mounting a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, the musical that mashes up several familiar fairy tales – most notably Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella – creating an alternate universe approach that explores the consequences of the various characters desires and quests. It has been Berris’s favorite musical, she said, since she first saw a high school production in Santa Barbara as a kid, and now the SMHS spring production represents her swan song as theater teacher and director at the school. There are more than 20 students in the cast, including freshman Maddie Thomas (who comes by her talent naturally, as she’s the daughter of Westmont theater professor Mitchell Thomas) playing Little Red Ridinghood, plus other Crane, Cold Spring, and Mt. Carmel school alums, and scores more in the orchestra and production departments. You don’t have to climb a beanstalk to forage in this fantastic fantasy – it’s playing at the school’s auditorium (4750 Hollister Ave.) May 3-12. Tickets are $10 to $14. Visit


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