Smile Politely

Mark Morris Dance Group’s Pepperland is guaranteed to raise a smile

It’s Mark Morris Dance Group Week in Chambana and for local dancers and dance fans, it feels like when your cool cousins come to stay for the holidays. Each year, you know they’ll bring great music, crazy new moves, and a bit of mischief. They’ll leave you feeling inspired and just a bit envious of their seemingly endless ability to bring magic to everything they touch. 

2019 marks the 20th anniversary of MMDG’s weeklong residency program at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois—a milestone worthy of celebration.  Over the years, MMDG has come to consider Champaign-Urbana its “Midwest home,” and our humble community continues to reap the rewards of this partnership. MMDG is deeply committed to community engagement, recognizing the power of art to bring people together and the inherent need for creative expression that lies within each of us. 

Editor’s note: If you’re new to the work of Mark Morris and the MMDG, here is a quick snapshot. Morris founded the company in 1980 and has since created 150 works, collaborated with the likes of Yo Yo Ma and Mikhail Baryshnikov. A Fellow of the MacArthur Foundation with eleven honorary degrees, Morris has been dubbed the “most successful and influential choreographer alive and indisputably the most musical” by the New York Times.  Yes, Chambana, that’s just how cool these cool cousins are. 

MMDG Week is filled with arts and humanities-based activities for all ages and abilities including masterclasses, workshops, free family-friendly events and always concludes with performances at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.  

This year’s dance performance—Pepperland—was itself inspired by an important anniversary— the 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Prior to the 2017 anniversary, Morris was approached by the organizers of Liverpool’s Sgt. Pepper at 50 Festival. Knowing his music-centric approach to choreography, he was the obvious choice. 

Morris has thought deeply about the album, how to approach it as a choreographer, and how it would resonate today.

“The music for Pepperland, arranged and extrapolating from tracks on The Beatles’, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is important to me because of the enormous impact the album caused in popular culture at large. “Beatlemania” in the UK and particularly in the US was a pivotal event in the turbulent social/political semi-revolution of the late 1960”s.

As a very young person, I was dazzled and confused by the music. I loved it and I loved The Beatles. Then, over the years, I lost touch and lost interest partly because of overexposure. When I was approached to participate in the commemorative project in Liverpool, I re-examined the recording and found so much of interest in it that I eagerly took on the big project of turning these very familiar songs into an evening length music and dance show. Pepperland is the exciting result.

This great album set a radical new direction for popular music and thought. I was just a child. 50 years later, with contemporary eyes and ears, we are presenting a comment and a rethinking of this profound cultural artifact with all of the imagination, surprise, humor, and bizarrity intact.”


Morris brought in long-time collaborator Ethan Iversion to compose and arrange an orginal new score that would be inspired by Sgt. Pepper, but would also fit Morris’ desire to work with classical forms.

Iverson has written much on this almost alchemical process of distilling parts of Sgt. Pepper, mixing classical forms and influences to forge a new transformative score. 

“The Pepperland score is a suite of chamber music performed by some of New York City’s finest iconoclasts. Half the piece is arrangements of the songs we all know, half is brand new danceable pieces responding to the strong undercurrent of classical music present on the original album.

Pepperland is an evening-length work meditating on the classic Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. When crafting the original masterpiece, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starr and Martin took cues from classical, jazz and world music, resulting in a complex set of songs. This new score for an unprecedented chamber music ensemble of voice, theremin, soprano sax, trombone, and keyboards will tease out and elaborate on Pepper’s non-rock and roll influences. Arrangements of half a dozen songs from the album will intermingle with Pepper-inspired original pieces written especially for Morris’s profound understanding of classical forms: Allegro, Scherzo, Adagio, and the blues.”

The MMDG’s long-standing commitment to performing with live music ultimately led to the creation of The MMDG Music Ensemble in 1996, which has been under the leadership of Colin Fowler since 2005.

The opportunity to experience the MMDG’s talent and energy with the power of live music is one that should not be missed. In the short clip below, you can practically see and feel the dancers’ bodies react and respond to the live vibrations of the ensemble’s instruments. After this, you will never want to experience dance another way.

Whether you’re a Beatles fan, a fan of dance in general or of MMDG in particular, you’ll want to experience the magic that happens when all of this talent, energy and passion for live music comes together in one place. 

Mark Morris Dance Group and MMDG Musical Ensemble: Pepperland
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin, Urbana
March 8th + 9th, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $10-$43, available for purchase online

Photos by Gareth Jones, video from the Mark Morris Dance Group website

Arts Editor

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