"Leyli and Majnun," a classic Azerbaijani tale of young lovers and meddling parents, has been compared to "Romeo and Juliet " in Mark Morris Dance Group’s production.
The story was given lusciously sensuous form, with gentle, insistent music from the Silkroad Ensemble and two celebrated Azerbaijani singers, mugham masters Alim Gasimov and his daughter Farghana Gasimova.
First, there is his exquisite use of the mesmerizing music. It was originally a three-hour opera by the 23-year-old Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli, which the Silkroad Ensemble arranged into an hour. The result is rich and velvet-toned, with slow and quickening pulses, and plaintive, questioning vocals. One recurring theme has the waltzy, humming quality and poignancy of an Aaron Copland air.
Mirroring Silk Road Ensemble’s instrumental mix of East and West, traditional and modern sounds, Morris’ movement invention combines the skittering bourrées of young love fluttering, Middle-Eastern folk dance forms, and balletic cabrioles, with primitive ceremonial gesture and pageantry. The overall impact is mesmerizing, with an energy and momentum that transports us to a non-linear state of mind that allows for each of us to become Layla and Majnun, aching so desperately for each other and
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.
The choreographer Mark Morris’s latest work is a rendering of Layla and Majnun, an Azerbaijani opera composed by Uzeyir Hajibeyli in 1908. This fall it launched Cal Performance’s season, premiering at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley on September 30. Layla and Majnun may be the most exotic and obscure score that Morris (who’s renowned for his eclectic musical taste) has ever set a dance to. No doubt many in Baku would take issue with my characterizing it as exotic and obscure: Hajibeyli’s opus was the first piece of composed music created in Azerbaijan and the first opera in the Muslim world, where it’s still considered a foundational work.
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.