World Premiere of Mark Morris Dance Group’s “Layla and Manjun” in Review

From the Summer 2017 issue of Ballet Review

The world premiere of Layla and Manjun at UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances, which co-commissioned it, found Mark Morris back in musicologist mode. It was one of those Mark Morris Dance Group evenings when the scholarly program notes bear equal interest to the action on stage.

At the risk of appearing remedial, let us begin here with a geography lesson: Azerbaijan. A country bounded by the Caspian Sea, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Iran. That is the birthplace of our score, billed as the Muslim world’s first opera, interweaving sections composed for Eastern and Western instruments with sections for mugham singing (which is improvisational and modal). Based on a roughly thousand-year-old love story, Layla and Manjun was composed by Uzeyir Hajibeyli in 1908, is now performed annually at the Azerbaijan State Theater, and claims its most devoted advocate in the 59-year-old Azerbaijani singer Alim Quasimov. Quasimov and his daughter Fargana have been at the center of Layla and Manjun since 2007, when the Silk Road Ensemble began performing their chamber version. And they are the constant, enrapturing center of this roughly hour-long Mark Morris staging, their plaintive, almost flamenco-like cries never flagging, their melismas sliding into gut-wrenching despair with astonishing stamina of grief.

Unfortunately, the performance’s other elements never quite coalesce around these voices.

Morris has, as usual, made many insightful and sometimes culturally subversive choices. He gives us not one pair of Layla and Manjuns, but four pairs, some of them same-sex. The multiplicity steers us away from the literal and towards experiencing the story as an abstracted allegory for the soul’s longing to be with God. That’s crucial in keeping our thematic interest — or was for me — because very quickly you realize not much plot is going to be served up in this “opera.” Their parents do not allow Layla and Manjun, in love from childhood, to marry. Layla is forced to marry another and Manjun refuses to relinquish his love for her and enters mystical bliss with his final line: “Lovers want to be together but separation brings them joy forever.”

The stage is very crowded. Several reviewers have commented that Layla and Manjun might be more powerful in a non-proscenium, chamber setting. Maybe. The two singers sit in the center, never moving; behind and beside them sits the ensemble of contrabass, viola, violin, cello, pipa, kamancheh, shakuhachi, tar, and percussion, ringed by tiers which the sixteen dancers navigated, the stage further crowded by lanterns set on each tier. This tended to limit the dancing patterns to a kind of Greek chorus surround-flow, with much processing in lines up and along the tiers, solos and duets emerging in front of the singers at center stage.

So clutter was a problem. But the clutter effect, I think, was a symptom of this production lacking the unity of vision behind works like Morris’s L’Allegro and his Dido and Aneas. Howard Hodgkin did the scenic and costume design here, adapting his own abstract painting, Love and Death, as a backdrop that shifts hues throughout the show in response to James F. Ingalls’ lighting. But primarily the backdrop is keyed to the costumes: Vivid orange-splattered dresses for the women, electric blue jackets for the men, and an optional scarf whose presence indicates which dancers, at any given moment, are representing Layla and Manjun. The hitch is that former company member Maile Okamura realized these costumes in synthetic fabrics. Far from the Silk Road, we seem to be in a Spandex universe. The black jazz shoes further distracted me.

What I always appreciate in Morris’ choreography is the sculptural nuance of the plastique — very Grecian. That’s what I focused on throughout the hour, since the dance-phrases were not offering much formalist payoff. The dancers spun, bowed, sunk into wide plies. The sprightlier sections’ inspiring little jigs were more interesting. Billy Smith had the final solo, thrashing, wild, ecstatic, and worth waiting sixty minutes for.

Copyright 2017 by Rachel Howard. Reprinted from the Summer 2017 issue of Ballet Review.