Pepperland: 'If you're here for a Beatles singalong, that's not going to happen'

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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”.

I went to see the Beatles and it was only screaming. There wasn’t one note of audible music

Related: Pepperland review – Mark Morris's Lonely Hearts Club dancers are a dream

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

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