Let's be candid: Under normal circumstances, the phrase "a dance performance inspired by Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is a good reason to run screaming.
Practically no one does "Beatles-inspired" art that comes anywhere close to getting it right. Even if you're willing to credit the spectacular design and staging of the tableaux in Julie Taymor's film Across the Universe, you'll still have to surmount the swanning, Auto-Tune-heavy song arrangements (blame Moulin Rouge) and the frustratingly literalistic extrapolations of the lyrics into character names, plot points, and mise-en-scènes.
Of course, the same thing was done, and worse—though also better, because that's what camp means—in the 1978 film debacle Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, in which Peter Frampton and the Brothers Gibb star as Billy Shears and the Lonely Hearts Club Band. They, along with Billy's true love Strawberry Fields, battle to save their hometown of Heartland, USA (the honorable Mr. Kite, mayor), from the evil developer Mr. Mustard.
And before that 1978 film came the touring stage show Beatlemania, the strange 1976 movie All This and World War II (archival 1940s film clips scored by 1970s covers of 1960s Beatles songs), and dozens, possibly hundreds, of novels, screenplays, and stage shows.
They fail because they try to replicate the irreducible compound of John, Paul, George, and Ringo—much as John, Paul, George, and Ringo themselves largely failed to replicate it after the band broke up. They were a living, breathing enigma. They spent the 1970s laboring under the delusion that their old band was just a band, and that they could lead others that might be just as good. At least one and probably two of them died without fully realizing that the Beatles were not chemistry; they were alchemy. They weren't a moment; they were a year zero.
And their songs weren't just songs in the classic sense; they were Beatles songs. This is why almost no one is good at covering them. There are a few exceptions: Stevie Wonder's "We Can Work It Out," Sonic Youth's "Within You, Without You," the Feelies' "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey," Al Green's "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," and a handful of others. These versions liberate the songs from the rhythmic lockdown that defines the original recordings, playing and singing them in ways the group never could have imagined.
Similarly, successful Beatles-inspired art tends to zoom way in or wander far afield. Christopher Munch's brilliant 1991 short film The Hours and the Times depicts John Lennon on an ambivalently homoerotic holiday in Spain with Brian Epstein in 1963, just before his world exploded. Kevin Barry's inspired 2015 novel Beatlebone locates a dissolute Lennon in 1978 on a small, uninhabited Irish island he'd purchased a decade earlier for an extended dark night of the soul.
Both works—worth seeking out—take real events as a starting point for wild speculation. They're both perfectly aware that they are shadows on a cave wall and that Lennon, and his cohort, are the light that generates them. Their subject is not the Beatles, but life in relation to them, their essence, their whatness. The actual subject is us.
Which brings us back to the subject of this Sgt. Pepper's–themed dance performance, from which I, like you, was perfectly prepared to run screaming. Then I learned that the show, Pepperland, was a creation of the legendary choreographer (and Seattle émigré) Mark Morris and his frequent musical collaborator Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus. It was commissioned by the city of Liverpool to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the release of the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band LP last June.
One look at the clips online, and I was hooked. This is not some jukebox revue, with leotarded coryphées swanning around like plasticene porters in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," pantomiming shovel work for "Fixing a Hole," and impersonating roosters on "Good Morning, Good Morning" while wearing kooky silk military uniforms against a tie-dye backdrop. Far out, man.
Not a bit of it. Elizabeth Kurtzman's costumes occupy an interesting intersection of mod and pre-hippie psychedelia, evoking the collision of Edwardian stuffiness and pop vibrancy that made mid-1960s London so exciting to see from afar.
Iverson's arrangements emphasize rhythmic variation, introducing a disorienting element to these impossibly familiar songs. He also composed original material to help bolster a 40-minute album into a 60-minute dance show; from the sound of it, the new compositions are brined in the many styles of music that inform the rock on Sgt. Pepper's—blues, jazz, music hall, and raga to name a few.
And as for the dancing? I don't know what to tell you. I'd be happy to talk about the Beatles till your ears fall off, but I have no idea how to describe the movements that Morris has created for this show, because I don't know the first thing about dance.
"That's okay," Morris told me on the phone when I confessed. "The very best advice I can give you about dance is: Don't go to very much of it."
"See me only." He wasn't laughing, but he clearly meant for me to be (which is not to suggest that he was entirely joking).
Fine by me, in any case. But first, why would an artist of Morris's stature and classical credentials be interested in doing a piece born of music so familiar and so comparatively simple?
"I thought, if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it all the way," he said. "I'm not going to do a 'tribute' or nostalgia thing or a reconstruction of the period—or take it lightly. If it were just a piece de passion, if I were just showing up to celebrate the Beatles and their 50 years over a pint—who the fuck cares about that?"
Now we're talking.
"They were in their 20s," Morris enthused. "They were just fooling around with the zeitgeist and the vaudeville thing that was in the air and the Orientalism—I think the first Indian-style music I ever remember hearing was that fabulous song of George Harrison's ['Within You, Without You']. I was 10 or 11 when it came out, and now I'm a giant devotee of, principally South Indian Carnatic music, but Indian music and dance. That's not on account of George Harrison, but it didn't hurt..."
Our conversation went on for another 20 minutes, but it never truly ended.