Onstage the dancers swirl in and out of complex formations on a multilevel set, filing around the musicians, who are grouped in the center of the stage. The women wear long dresses of coral flecked with white, the men tunics of marbled cobalt blue over white trousers. The singers are seated dead center on a raised platform, their continuo musicians, on tar and kamanche, next to them. The voices of the singers, Alim Qasimov, the renowned master of mugham singing from Azerbaijan, and his daughter and protege, Fargana Qasimova, rise above the dance, pure and clear as cold water, wrenching as a knife to the heart. Their upraised hands and faces, torn with emotion, seem to echo their words, as do their bodies, swaying in the aftermath of the sung poetry.
As if to demonstrate the contrast between tremendous talent and tremendous lack of same, last week also brought us a remarkable new work by Mark Morris, a staging of a famous Azerbaijani opera called Layla and Majnun, one of the Middle East’s most famous and beloved tales—its equivalent of Romeo and Juliet. Yes, love between two young people is thwarted (though in Layla and Majnun it’s not consummated). Lives are blighted, death prevails. But that’s the end of the equivalency. This opera is not about plot specifics, it’s about the eternal verities.
Mark Morris’s new—what to call it?—opera, dance, Gesamtkunstwerk, which had its New York premiere last weekend at the White Light Festival, strikes me as his best work of the decade. I hesitate to go out on a limb like this, because Morris is so notoriously eager to violate expectations that he may well come up with something better next week, just to put me in the wrong. But I have to say that, at least since about 2010, I have not seen any new piece, by any choreographer, that moved me more than Layla and Majnun.
Layla and Majnun, choreographer Mark Morris’s 13th work to have its world premiere at Cal Performances, is a delight. The piece, slightly over an hour long, combines — with concision, precision, heart and brio — all the qualities that are best in Morris’ aesthetic.
This classic tale...gives us a new lens through which to delight in a superb dance maker, with a company to match.
The staging required that the dancers move through and around the musicians, and this intertwining gave the piece a coherent visual identity and a flowing energy.
Moreover, the dancers showed how deeply connected they were not only to the music but also to each other. Mugham singing is improvisational and the singers can shorten or lengthen their solos as they feel is necessary. Every performance is different. This puts increased pressure on the dancers to be aware of shifts in the music and to communicate with each other more or less simultaneously. The company’s integrity to the performance, to the singers, to the music was spot on.
Mr. Morris does not so much tell the Layla-Majnun story as refract it, ritualize it, multiply it. The emphasis is all on emotion. The staging... is visually beautiful... Mr. Morris’s choreography deconstructs and distills the poetic legend with charm and taste.
Do we watch the incomparable musicians [of the Silk Road Ensemble]? Or do we fix our gaze on the 16 amazing dancers of the Mark Morris Dance Group enacting this tragedy of impossible love in front of the boldly hued and textured backdrop by Howard Hodgkin, all aglow in James F. Ingalls’ lighting?
Inevitably, as the 65-minute work progresses, you find yourself immersed in something organic and wonderful.
Mark Morris speaks with "Here and Now's" Robin Young.
"The music is very, very appealing. The story is, of course, universal, like every good story...people who aren’t used to hearing this kind of music — try it first of all. It’s incredibly ecstatic and thrilling. It reminds me of... very popular, a couple of decades ago... the Qawwali style of singing from Pakistan, the Sufi tradition… It’s the heart singing to another heart…” - Mark Morris (interview excerpt)
The epic poem Layla and Majnun is arguably the most famous love story in the Middle East, and yet many Westerners have never heard of it. It is the tale of two teenagers who fall deeply in love but are tragically kept apart, even until death. This September, the tale will come to life in an ambitious operatic production commissioned by Cal Performances and at least ten other organizations, including Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. The artists who have come together to build the opera form the ultimate dream team.
Torange Yeghiazarian, artistic director of a Middle Eastern–American theater company in San Francisco called Golden Thread Productions, sees this new production as a chance for audiences to connect with the Middle East on a different level. “It’s rare that you see the Middle East and beauty and art and love in the same sentence. It has been so vilified, and every day we are bombarded with images painting us as evil or painting the Middle East as something to avoid, if at all possible…. This poem is so passionate and inspirational, and the descriptions are so vivid, how it paints the surroundings and the lushness and ornateness of the space.” But most of all, to her, “These are human stories” that are important because they “provide a shared human experience.”