Layla and Majnun: Love, Ecstasy, Infinity

Layla and Majnun, like Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet, tells of an impossible young love that leads to the lovers’ untimely deaths.


Choreographer Mark Morris’ much-lauded musicality often overshadows another important current in his work: the way it connects the individual and the universal. For Morris, love and universality are inextricable, and universal love is the ultimate good. Couples dances are rare in his work and usually occur within the context of the larger group. Harmony is greater than romance.

There is no truer example of this than his staging of the Azerbaijani opera “Layla and Majnun” for his dancers and the musicians of the Silk Road Ensemble, coming to the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center this week.

The opera, by the early 20th-century Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli, is based on a story as widely known in the Middle East as “Romeo and Juliet” is in the West. Like Shakespeare’s tragedy, it tells of an impossible young love that leads to the lovers’ untimely deaths. But Layla and Majnun’s longing is never consummated. They pine for each other, over many years and long distances. Majnun becomes a hermit, composes poetry and goes mad; Layla is married off to someone else, but dreams only of Majnun. It’s only after death that they are able to come together.

“It’s not about sex,” Morris said on a recent afternoon in his office at his company’s headquarters in Brooklyn. “In ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ the lovers have one night of fabulous teenage sex, and then they die, and that’s perfect. But this is beyond that. And that’s because God eludes them. In the end, they drop their bodies and become pure spirit. It’s about infinity.”

In its many forms, the story, whose origins lie in pre-Islamic folklore, has spread across the Arab world, as well as to Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan and India. Over the centuries it has inspired innumerable works of art: epic poems (by the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi and 16th-century Azerbaijani poet Fuzuli); paintings (there are a few at the Metropolitan Museum); songs; movies; a ballet and even Eric Clapton’s anthemic “Layla.”

Hajibeyli’s opera, the basis of Morris’ staging, is considered the first opera of the Middle Eastern world and is a product of the internationalism of its time. “Hajibeyli had this mega-project in mind, to integrate his nation into the rest of the world while keeping its heritage,” Aida Huseynova, a musicologist involved in the Silk Road adaptation of the work, explained via Skype.

You could see it as an early example of multiculturalism. It was composed in Baku — the capital of Azerbaijan, then under Russian control — in 1908, a time of prosperity and foreign influence, the result of an oil rush. And it quickly became a classic — to this day it is performed yearly at the Baku opera house.

The composition is a highly original hybrid of the usual operatic elements (orchestral passages, choruses and recitatives) with a native Azerbaijani style of sung storytelling, known as mugham, characterized by long passages of structured improvisation and ornamentation. The orchestration uses Western instruments alongside local ones like the tar (a plucked stringed instrument) and the kamancheh (a bowed one). For his staging, Morris drew upon a 2007 adaptation of the work created for the Silk Road Ensemble, which reduced the opera to less than an hour from three, distilling the story to its essence and shrinking the musical ensemble from several dozen to 10.

Mark Morris, a choreographer, will be staging the Azerbaijani opera “Layla and Majnun” with his dancers and the Silk Road Ensemble. Photo: George Etheredge/The New York Times

In Morris’ version, which had its premiere at Cal Performances in Berkeley, California, last fall, the two singers sit on cushions on a platform at the center of the stage while the musicians surround them in a semicircle. “This is how court poetry was performed in the 12th century,” explained Fatemeh Shams, a University of Pennsylvania professor and specialist in Persian poetry, “with minstrels and poets performing together.”

The singers don’t move or act, they just sing — but their voices are at the heart of the performance. Alim Qasimov, who interprets Majnun, is a silver-voiced powerhouse and a riveting performer. “He’s a giant star!” exclaimed Morris. “People at the airport in Baku push Yo-Yo Ma out of the way to get to him.” Layla is sung by the equally distinguished Fargana Qasimova, his daughter.

While they sing, the dancers interpret the story through movement. Four pairs represent the lovers at different stages. (This choice further depersonalizes their love. They represent Layla and Majnun and all lovers — and beyond that, love itself.) Behind them rises a striking backdrop of red and green brush strokes, an enlarged version of a painting by Howard Hodgkin titled “Love and Death.” They dance, in red and blue Azerbaijani-inspired costumes, on the floor in front of the singers and along platforms lining three sides of the stage.

“I did it that way because it reflects the style of performance from that region of the world,” Morris said. (Mugham was traditionally performed in small gatherings at court or in upper-class homes.) “And I wanted it to be a group of people doing something together.”

Because the singers are improvising (within limits), the dancers have learned to follow the Azerbaijani text and inflections of the voice so that they can adapt to the length of each mugham “aria” on any particular night; the singers and dancers take cues from each other.

Some of the dancing is more abstract, others clearly gestural, meant to evoke specific situations (and even small details like a description of a flickering flame). Morris incorporated elements of Azerbaijani dance into his personal dance vocabulary, things like strong, rhythmic footwork and a very specific way of holding the hands, different for men and women. But the dancing also reflects more general Middle Eastern motifs like Sufi whirling.

More than anything, Morris’ concept highlights the ecstatic and improvisatory style of the music. “That kind of singing is about what’s being spun out at that moment,” he said, “and with people who are great at that, like South Indian musicians and great jazz players and these great mugham singers, there’s nothing like it.”

© New York Times


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