The present version of Layla and Majnun is based on an opera by the Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli, refracted through the eyes of the American choreographer Mark Morris for his Dance Group, in collaboration with the Silkroad Ensemble, an international cross-cultural orchestra founded exactly 20 years ago by the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
In keeping with the Eastern tradition they are joined with two Azerbaijani singers: Alim Qasimov (UNESCO-designated Living National Treasure) and his daughter Fergana Qasimova, who sing in traditional mugham style.
With a stunning backdrop in splashes of bright red, green and yellow by the late painter Howard Hodgkin, who also designed the vibrant costumes – long coral dresses with splashes of white for the women, and periwinkle blue silk tunics for the men – Layla and Majnun is a cultural blend of dazzling coherence, an eye-filling spectacle of extraordinary beauty.
It starts with a long prologue, where two young singers (Kamila Nabiyeva and Miralam Miralamov) accompanied by two musicians, perform a medley of Azerbaijani folk songs, mostly lamentations for lost love.
Then we’re into Layla and Majnun proper, as the main orchestra, singers and 12 dancers take to the stage. By itself the singing of Alim Qasimov and Fergana Qasimova is mesmerising enough: his voice deep and highly expressive, hers rich and creamy, their vocal lines featuring complex melismas, whereby a single syllable is decorated with intricate up and down flourishes.
The theme of their songs is projected in translation on unobtrusive screens either side of the stage: ‘My soul is on fire because we’re apart/I want to rejoin my beloved,’ sings Qasimov; ‘My true love knows my heart is breaking/He knows what sadness lives in my heart,’ replies Qasimova.
Mark Morris’s choreography is a skilful blend of his own flowing, skipping, expansive style and that of eastern dances, from the whirling dervishes of Sufi tradition to folk dance from Azerbaijan and beyond. A traditional balletic developé turns into a yearning arabesque leading further away from a partner as it repeats again and again. Hands and arms create rhythmic patterns; at one point the dancers join hands to form a fluid line straight out of folk dancing.
It’s not narrative dance per se, more of a kaleidoscopic riff on the themes of love and separation. At different times, different couples embody Layla and Majnun, from the first expression of exuberant, innocent love (Mica Bernas, Dallas McMurray) to later expressions of the heart-rending pain of separation.
In Layla and Majnun, Mark Morris, the Silkroad Ensemble and their collaborators have created a masterpiece that shows beyond any doubt that cultures can leach into, and immeasurably enrich each other.
Free pre-show talk Wed 14 Nov at 18:30
|Review: Mark Morris Dance Group/Silkroad Ensemble, Layla and Majnun
|Sadler's Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R 4TN | MAP
13 Nov 18 – 17 Nov 18, 19:30 Sat mat 14:00 Dur.: 1 hour 10 mins no interval
|Click here to book via Sadler's Wells website