Mark Morris Dance Group’s costume designer Elizabeth Kurtzman talks vibrant inspiration behind Beatles show, ‘Pepperland’

According to Rolling Stone, The Beatles hit album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ranked #1 of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003.  Not only is this groundbreaking album visually compelling, but songs on the album such as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, With a Little Help from My Friends, Penny Lane, When I’m Sixty-Four, and the album’s popular title track are considered rock and roll classics.

What is it like to bring that album to life in vibrant color in its 50th anniversary year?  New York costume designer Elizabeth Kurtzman talks about what it was like to bring Mark Morris Group, Pepperland to the stage.  Celebrity Series of Boston presents Mark Morris Dance Group’s Pepperland, a tribute to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to the Boch Center Shubert Theatre in Boston February 8-10.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Seattle. Images by Mat Hayward/Celebrity Series of Boston

Sleepless Critic:  It must be exciting to portray the essence of this classic Beatles album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in its 50th anniversary year.  Please tell me what your initial thoughts were in taking on this project.

Elizabeth Kurtzman:  I read the email inviting me to work on a project that involved music by the Beatles. I thought I was dreaming and was really intrigued.  Mark Morris and the Beatles are two of my favorite things.  I could not imagine how it would all look and sound. I knew it would not be by-the-book –Beatles and it had to be turned around pretty quickly.

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Seattle. Images by Mat Hayward/Celebrity Series of Boston

The 60s brought rapidly changing style. There is a lot of information in the years the Beatles made all that music, so there were a lot of possibilities.

SC:  You have worked with the Mark Morris Dance Group numerous times.  How was this project a unique experience for you and what do you like most about working with them? I know it might have been a challenge to tie in a contemporary feel to such an iconic time period.

EK:  They look great in these clothes/costumes and wish the guys wore these suits all the time.  They are a dream and it isn’t easy to dance in layers made out of corduroy.

Some of Mark’s pieces require more research than others. I spent hours looking up fashion and color from 1960-69. Mark was not interested in dressing the dancers in satin and feathers a la the album cover. It was more about trying to send the message of the early sixties. Simple shapes, but those shapes looked new, fresh, and young. Colored tights were so futuristic and men’s suits got smaller and cuter. I was a kid mid-sixties, but was completely mesmerized by those clothes.

Color was just as important as shape. Colors were new, synthetic fabrics made bolder, brighter fabrics available. The color palette was loosely based on a photo of a mural painted on a corner on Carnaby Street in London.

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Seattle Images by Mat Hayward/Celebrity Series of Boston

SC:  Songs like With A Little Help From My Friends, When I’m Sixty-Four, and the title track are just a few of the songs portrayed visually onstage.  What was that process like and can you offer a hint of the vibe audiences can expect when they see the show?

EK:  I think the show is about the energy of the time which offers a lot of happiness with a little melancholy thrown in.

SC:  From what I have seen of your work, you seem to add a vibrant personality to the performers that take the stage.  The colors and designs really pop.

The dancers are so game and energetic, the color and design only enhance their skill.  I love working with fabric and color and am fortunate to be able to attend rehearsals, which is where I get to see the personality of the dance and how the dancers move.

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Seattle. Images by Mat Hayward/Celebrity Series of Boston

 SC:  What has been the most challenging work you have done in New York or otherwise?

EK:  I can’t say there is one thing I’ve worked on that stands out as most challenging. There are always a few little challenges, but always a way to overcome them. It is more challenging working with small theatre companies that have tiny budgets and lots of costume changes or working with opera singers who hate the way they look in any and everything.  The biggest challenge is sewing it myself.

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Liverpool Images by Robbie Jack/Celebrity Series of Boston

SC:  You also provide art and music for programs for children in New York City.  Please tell me more about that and how you got involved.

Several years ago, I was involved with the Children’s Museum of the Arts downtown. I was determined to get kids to design and repurpose their clothes. Most of the adults I know do not know how to sew on a button.

I helped put together a program for children on the autism spectrum and their families that provided a place for making great art and music.  I also spent many hours designing and making costumes for the theatre department at my daughter’s high school who graduated in 2017.

Celebrity Series of Boston presents Mark Morris Group, Pepperland, at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre in Boston from February 8-10.  Click here for more information and for tickets. Tickets can also be obtained at the Celebrity Series of Boston’s box office.  Follow Celebrity Series of Boston on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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