Layla and Majnun: Mark Morris & The Silk Road Ensemble
above: The Mark Morris Dance Group performs the world premiere of Layla and Majnun with the Silk Road Ensemble Friday, September 30 – Sunday, October 2, 2016 in Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley. Photo credit: Amber Star.
A Rich Tapestry of Dance & Music!
Azerbaijani mugham vocalists Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova join the Silk Road Ensemble and the Mark Morris Dance Group for the world premiere performances of Layla and Majnun Friday, September 30 – Sunday, October 2, 2016 in Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley
(Photo credit: David O’Connor)
Review by Jo Tomalin
The World Premiere of Layla and Majnun by Mark Morris on September 30th 2016 produced by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, pairs the Mark Morris Dance Group with music performed by The Silk Road Ensemble. This production launches the second season of the Cal Performances Berkeley Radical initiative addressing an important issue in contemporary society: Inclusion.
Layla and Majnun is a classic Arabian story of unrequited love, set to music by Uzeyir Hajiberli and arranged by Alim Qasimov, Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen. The performance of this story, choreographed and directed by award-winning Morris, is told through movement, music and song. The Mark Morris Dance Group – comprising twelve or so dancers – play all the characters with lyrical movement in a fascinating staging concept where the dancers move around and among the musicians. Two accomplished mugham vocalists tell the story through song as Layla (Fargana Qasimova) and Majnun (Alim Qasimov), sit centre stage, surrounded by ten musicians of the Silk Road Ensemble.
The story is divided into five short clearly defined scenes beginning with the couple meeting, flirting, falling in love, their parents disapproving, intervening and a sad ending. In an inspired device by Morris a different pair of dancers play Layla and Majnun in each of the first four scenes with several pairs in the last scene. It is interesting to see the different aspects of Layla and Majnun each pair of dancers brings as they interact and dance together. Each section of the story embraces varying moods and events and the song, music and movement embrace it all. The dancers act and move with joy, angst and passion with visceral movement, while the magnificent singing is strong, full and resonant ranging from joyful to somber. The Silk Road Ensemble musicians beautifully interpret this condensed version of Hajiberli’s composition, which was originally a full-length opera score.
There’s a lot to look at and listen to which challenges one’s focus at times, yet the ensemble is dynamic and creates a rich tapestry of dancers and musicians. The multi level set with an intensely colored huge abstract backdrop of red and green art weaves the musicians and dancers into one. The male dancers wear blue tunics and white pants and the female dancers wear long dresses in shades of reddish orange and white (costume and set design by Howard Hodgkin).
The first part of the sixty five minute program features members of The Silk Road Ensemble playing a Medley of Azerbaijani Music: Bayato Shiraz of folk songs and traditional mughams featuring two instrumentalists (Rauf Islamov and Zaki Valiyev) and two vocalists (Kamila Nabiyeva and Miralam Miralamov) serving as an overture. Yo-Yo Ma founded The Silk Road Ensemble in 2000 – renowned as an international innovative virtuoso group of musicians promoting cultural understanding. (Yo-Yo Ma does not perform in Layla and Majnun).
Layla and Majnun is wonderful visual storytelling, beautifully lit in warm tones by James F. Ingalls. Morris’ choreography is a florid and energetic fusion of modern, balletic and folk dance motifs, such as symbolic flat profile of hands hiding the face, and slow dervish like circular movements. Well-defined arm movements are sharp, emotive and form unusual shapes as their outstretched bodies lean and sway, there are also interesting quick lifts and lithe footwork. Layla and Majnun is a moving and dramatic piece by Mark Morris, beautiful designed by Howard Hodgkin and exquisitely performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group and The Silk Road Ensemble.