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Mark Morris Dance Group & Silkroad Ensemble: Layla and Majnun

Mark Morris Dance Group - Silkroad Ensemble Layla and Majnun - Copyright Susana Millman
Mark Morris Dance Group – Silkroad Ensemble Layla and Majnun – Copyright Susana Millman

We often talk about the universality of music – about how it can unite us even if we have no common language or shared core culture. The same applies perhaps even more so to dance. Back in 1980, I went to live outside of Britain for the first time – three years in The Netherlands. Although not a long way away physically it certainly was then in other ways, not least in The Arts. In those pre-internet and pre-satellite TV days we relied on local television and local live performances for our entertainment. Dutch theatre was (initially anyway) off limits but the non-verbal media of concerts and the ballet were a good choice. It was then that we discovered the Nederlands Dans Theater and the work of their brilliant young Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián. This superb modern dance Group created original works which were on the cusp of modern dance and ballet but really defied categorisation.

Perhaps of all the artistic media dance most gives creative artists the freedom to innovate – which brings us to Mark Morris. From his ground-breaking debut in New York in 1980 he has stretched the boundaries of the possibilities of what dance can achieve.

“Layla and Majnun” is firmly in the long line of Mark Morris’s original work. The story is a “star-crossed lovers” tragedy which originates in the Middle East and Asia but in this instance derives from Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli’s opera from the early 20th Century. This three-hour work has been pared down to just over an hour by the “Silkroad Ensemble”, Yo-Yo Ma’s extraordinary chamber orchestra who perform the work on stage with the dance taking place around them. The music is lyrical and flowing with a strong Eastern sound and vocals played on a mix of western and eastern instruments. Mark Morris has reflected the music in his choreography which is equally flowing and expressive. Although the story is sad the music is never discordant and the dancers’ moves seem sorrowful, but never angry. There is a sense of unavoidable destiny from the start. The design, by the late Howard Hodgkin, is also understated and the costumes emphasise one of the themes, the different roles of men and women in this imaginary world. The men are in a bright, but not warm blue, and the women in a red that is almost, but not quite vibrant.

One of Mark Morris’s trademarks is the diversity of his casts – gender stereotypes only apply if the drama requires it and his dancers vary in every way – physically as well as in their natural dance style. I noticed particularly how the dancers had the freedom to interpret the choreography – obviously within boundaries, but they were individuals as well as being part of an ensemble. This doesn’t happen in the usual Corps de Ballet! Some of the movements reminded me of Kylián all those years ago – particularly the use of the hands. This is a restrained, poignant and engaging work – a timely reminder that music and dance can be part of the process of healing when there are forces around us driving us apart.

4 stars

Review by Paddy Briggs

Created by the American choreographer Mark Morris, produced by Mark Morris Dance Group, in collaboration with the Silkroad Ensemble – the musical collective founded by Yo-Yo Ma – Layla and Majnun makes its UK debut from Tuesday 13 – Saturday 17 November at Sadler’s Wells. Layla and Majnun is a Sadler’s Wells 20th Anniversary Commission.

The ancient story of Layla and Majnun is a cornerstone of Middle Eastern folklore. Morris’ production bases itself on Uzeyir Hajibeyli’s 1908 Azerbaijani opera, portraying the classic story. This will be the first time that an adaptation of Layla and Majnun on this scale has been presented in the UK.

Madness and mysticism intertwine with the idea of eternal love as Majnun is driven mad over his unobtainable love for Layla. 16 dancers interpret the narrative, tailoring their movements to profound, improvised music, sung in the style of mugham by father and daughter vocalists Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova. Traditional Asian instruments also play in harmony with Western strings and percussion.

Featuring costume and set design by Howard Hodgkin, including a section from Love and Death (2015), lighting design by James F. Ingalls, with musical arrangement by Colin Jacobsen and Johnny Gandelsman.

Listings information:
Mark Morris Dance Group & Silkroad Ensemble
Layla and Majnun
Tuesday 13 – Saturday 17 November
Sadler’s Wells, EC1R 4TN


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