“How are your knees”? This unexpected table-turning question from Mark Morris came a few minutes into our transatlantic interview. It arose from the revelation that we were both born in the same month and year, a coincidence that now brings a certain urgency to the lyrics of When I’m Sixty-Four, the song of a young man to his lover that Paul McCartney wrote when he was just sixteen, which ended up as the whimsy in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

MMDG in Mark Morris' <i>Pepperland</i> © Robbie Jack
MMDG in Mark Morris' Pepperland
© Robbie Jack

That album was released in May 1967, and I’m now talking to the renowned choreographer – by telephone from his home city of Seattle – because the City of Liverpool commissioned him to open the Sgt Pepper at 50 Festival with a dance work based on the seminal LP. The resulting production duly opened at Liverpool’s Royal Court, exactly fifty years and a day after its release, and to significant critical acclaim.

At first sight it might seem that Morris was an incongruous choice for a danced response to The Beatles since Morris never makes work to recorded music, maintaining a complete commitment to live music at every performance of the Mark Morris Dance Group, the company he created in 1980. An intensely musical choreographer, he has directed music festivals and opera and often conducts the music for performances of his work. His response to Liverpool’s invitation was to engage Ethan Iverson – formerly the MMDG music director – to create a new score interspersed with innovative arrangements of six Beatles’ songs (five from the album, plus Penny Lane, released six months later). “Sgt Pepper is only 40 minutes’ long and we needed a full-evening work”, explains Morris, “so Ethan has added his own musical interludes that were influenced by the abundance of musical ideas in the album, such as the classical Indian forms of Within You Without You”.

I suggest that it must have been a risk to bring this musical interpretation of their work to the city that “owns” The Beatles and where a band that stopped touring in 1966 is still worth £80m a year to the local economy. “It was daunting, to say the least”, Morris replies. “I mean you’re in trouble in Liverpool if you don’t pronounce The Beatles the way they say it! I was never going to choreograph a work to a CD and Ethan’s score brings something new and special. The audience’s reaction at the premiere was great. They were clapping along to much-loved tunes even though the music took surprising and unfamiliar turns. These unexpected directions all added to the excitement of honouring this amazing music by creating something fresh”.

MMDG in Mark Morris' <i>Pepperland</i> © Gareth Jones
MMDG in Mark Morris' Pepperland
© Gareth Jones

Morris says that he was “never a devotee” of The Beatles although he recalls that America was a “vast, distant headquarters of Beatlemania” and acknowledges that “the level of fanaticism was inescapable”. The band’s final tour – in August 1966 – was to the USA and young Mark was taken to the Seattle Center Coliseum for what was to be The Beatles’ third-last major gig. Morris has clear memories of that momentous event: “I was dazzled by the music and I vividly recall the noise of the fans. The screaming was the reason for them giving up live gigs”. In a neat synergy, their final concert (at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park) occurred, three days later, on Morris’s tenth birthday. “I lost touch with the music over the years but when Sean (Dillon) asked me to make a work based on Sgt. Pepper and I returned to the album after such a long absence, it all came back to me, especially understanding the enormous impact this music had on art, culture, society and politics”.

In the two years since the Liverpool opening, Pepperland has toured the US to great acclaim but little has been altered. “Kind of nothing, really”, explains Morris, “although I have added two dancers to the cast. There’s no new choreography but the parts are spread over more performers”. It is five years since MMDG last toured the UK, although the company has made sporadic one-off forays (such as performing Layla & Majnun at Sadler’s Wells, last year). Morris is looking forward to another extended visit although, politically, he sees worrying parallels in our respective societies. “Some aspects of America are upsetting”, he says, “but Brexit means that Britain is also not a happy place right now”.

When dance companies are so indelibly linked to the image of their founder, long-term futures are uncertain. Merce Cunningham’s company completed an orderly exit after his death; that of Richard Alston is discontinuing even though the man it is named after is very much alive and still keen to make work. Many other choreographers appear to have given little thought to the future legacy of their companies after they have gone but, in line with the sentiment of When I’m Sixty-Four, Morris has been uniquely pro-active. “I’ve been laying down two additional works, each year, for some time”, he says. “These are not to be performed now but after I’ve died or when I can no longer make new work”, he continues with disarming candour. Added to an existing repertoire of around 150 works, this growing “cellar” of unperformed work should provide an ongoing agenda for a long-term legacy. At a time when the public thirst for new performances by dead artists is leading to hologram concerts, it’s a salutary thought to imagine that future generations will still be enjoying Mark Morris premieres. He could even be laying one down for the centenary of Sgt Pepper!