Layla, Layla, wherefore art thou Layla?
Layla and Majnun is a centuries old Middle-Eastern love story common to cultures across ethnic and religious divides. The two eponymous characters love each other but Layla’s parents disapprove of Majnun and force their daughter to marry someone else. Heartbroken, Majnun devotes himself to poetry and, despite their best attempts, they never meet again.
Mark Morris’ version of the tale is based on the Azerbaijani opera by Uzeyir Hajibeyli and it’s a good ten minutes before you get any dancing – there’s a beautifully sung overture to set the tone first. The set-up is simple. A small platform, covered by a mat, sits centre-stage and the two singers sit cross-legged on it, flanked by a pair of musicians playing a tar (a small guitar-like instrument) and a kamancheh (a teeny-tiny cello). Behind them is a small ensemble playing a mix of western and eastern classical instruments while all around them is a stepped walkway on which the dancers perform. Simple but attractive.
The story is told through the vocals. Rather like the ents in The Lord of the Rings it takes a long time for something to get said but it’s said beautifully – the depth of sounds created by Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova was a masterclass in breath control. The dancers in turn express the characters’ emotional responses through a melding of folk, contemporary and classical. At first it’s a little weird – the dancers seem to be overly reverential of the material – but Morris’ innately musical choreography is so stringently knitted together that everything soon seems perfectly natural. There’s also the neat idea that Layla and Majnun don’t have to be played by the same couple all the way through – they’re depicted by whoever’s wearing the red and the white scarf – and the subtle finale of two lanterns being snuffed out is very touching.
It’s the whole that works; the soft rhythm of the music, the swirl of the ladies dresses and the colourful swab of the backdrop all contribute to the atmosphere of the song and dance. It also benefits from telling the story and ending it there – it doesn’t force a particular take on it, it lets you, the audience draw what you will from it. Ah, it feels good to have a choreographer not lecture you on something unfathomably obtuse.
The dancers were terrific in the end, performing with a rich variety of movement and expression without ever trying to take over the music which was played with a deft appreciation by the Silkroad Ensemble. Layla and Majnun was a thoughtful and intelligent show, a welcome alternative to the wham, bang, thank you ma’am of much modern work.