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Mark Morris created ‘Pepperland’ with a little help from his friends

Members of Mark Morris Dance Group perform “Pepperland.”
Members of Mark Morris Dance Group perform “Pepperland.”(Mat Hayward)

In 1967, the Beatles released a recording that many still consider the greatest rock album ever produced. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was not only strikingly unconventional in style and format, but emotionally engaging in its portrayal of the characters of “Penny Lane,” its musing about “When I’m Sixty-Four,” its celebration of getting by “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Perhaps the first pop concept album, it also mined musical influences from Bach to Berio, with a thread of Ravi Shankar as well.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the album’s release, choreographer Mark Morris created the new “Pepperland” for his Mark Morris Dance Group, which Celebrity Series of Boston presents Feb. 8-10 at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre. The hourlong work features an original score by longtime collaborator Ethan Iverson that combines arrangements of some of the original tunes with new music inspired by the album. Costumes by Elizabeth Kurtzman and lighting by Nick Kolin evoke the trippy styles and DayGlo colors of the psychedelic ’60s.

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Commissioned by the city of Liverpool (Celebrity Series is one of a number of organizations in on the co-commission), the work premiered there in 2017, in the place where the Beatles got their start, with critics lauding it as witty, joyous, celebratory.

Morris is just relieved the whole thing came together, given its tight deadline of only four months. “It took a very long time to decide which songs to use and get global performance rights for the arrangements, and Ethan had to write the music while we were rehearsing and performing other stuff,” Morris says. “I really didn’t know what was going to happen, but mercifully it turned out really well.”

He is quick to point out that though the choreography incorporates references to social dances of the time, the piece is not a trip down memory lane. “I didn’t want to do a period reconstruction,” he explains. “There is storytelling involved in that all the songs have words whether we use them or not, but it’s not nostalgic. And it’s not ironic, not postmodern. . . . I think it’s touching, but not because it reminds me of my youth.”

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The work uses six numbers from the album that Iverson has reimagined for an unusual chamber instrumentation of voice, soprano saxophone, two keyboards, percussion, and theremin, incorporated in response to a commission request for an electronic element. “It’s the first electronic instrument, from the ’20s, and I’m blown away by [performer] Rob Schwimmer,” Iverson says. “I couldn’t do this piece without him.”

Iverson says “Sgt. Pepper” was one of the few rock LPs he listened to in high school. “The tunes were so good. And part of the brilliance of the album is that you don’t notice how complicated it is.” Iverson notes that for many, including Morris, the album provided a first experience of hearing Indian music, and “Pepperland” includes an extended rhapsody on “Within You Without You.”

“With ‘Pepperland,’ I wanted to create a suite that emulated the spirit of those evening-length oratorios [Mark is famous for] with contrasting dances, different tempi, all energized in a way that was distinctly Mark — quite clear, not too expressionistic or complicated,” Iverson says. “The tunes are there, but the accompaniment for the tunes can be quite wild. It’s kind of a tuneful deconstruction, quite fun and listenable. And my original pieces have some aspect related to ‘Sgt. Pepper’ but in classical forms — allegro, scherzo, a blues, an adagio.”

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“It’s familiar music treated in an unfamiliar way,” adds Morris, citing surprising phrasing, chord and meter changes, polyrhythms. “We made up the context as we went along, on the spot, from the ground up.”

Along the way, Iverson says, the work offers plenty of laughs. “It’s really fun to do, a delight to play,” he says. Which is a good thing: After Boston and two nights in Illinois, the company embarks on seven weeks of touring the piece in the United Kingdom.

“Pepperland” has given Morris an opportunity to revisit a work whose resonance has changed over time. Morris was only 13 when he first heard it and recalls the frenetic Beatlemania of those early years. He saw the Beatles perform live in Seattle when he was 10 and had a crush on Paul until he realized John Lennon was the more complex music-maker.

The choreographer is 62 now. Back then, “ ‘When I’m 64’ was the song I hated the most,” Morris says. “But it’s a wonderful, very, very interesting number that changes meter all the time and it’s very surprising.” And after all, who doesn’t like surprises?

Mark Morris Dance Group

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Boch Center Shubert Theatre, Feb. 8-10. Tickets $35-$75. 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org


Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.