Layla and Majnun

Mark Morris’s new—what to call it?—opera, dance, Gesamtkunstwerk, which had its New York premiere last weekend at the White Light Festival, strikes me as his best work of the decade. I hesitate to go out on a limb like this, because Morris is so notoriously eager to violate expectations that he may well come up with something better next week, just to put me in the wrong. But I have to say that, at least since about 2010, I have not seen any new piece, by any choreographer, that moved me more than Layla and Majnun.

I am glad I waited for its New York appearance, instead of catching it at its 2016 world premiere in Berkeley’s rather large, cold Zellerbach Hall, because the relatively intimate Rose Theater was just the right place to see it. The performers, too, had had a chance to settle into their roles, though apparently one of the outstanding solo dancers, Mica Bernas, was taking on her part for the very first time when I saw her on opening night. Paired with the always-wonderful Dallas McMurray, she was the first and last Layla of the evening, and the way she and McMurray danced together—and most of all apart—utterly cemented our belief in the enduring, tragic love affair that lay at the heart of this production.

In its traditional Azerbaijani form, this opera for two voices tells the story of star-crossed young lovers whose parents separate them, forcing the girl to marry a man she doesn’t love, until death comes to rescue them both. Morris has staged this simple yet complicated work in a series of concentric rings, with the two remarkable singers, Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova, seated cross-legged in the center, surrounded by the musicians of the Silk Road Ensemble, who are in turn encircled by a series of prancing, whirling, falling, stepping, fighting, leaping, sitting, watching dancers from the Mark Morris Dance Group. Four separate couples enact the two lovers, in sequence and then all together, and each pair brings something new and special to the interpretation.

The sequence of events is stark: Love and Separation, The Parents’ Disapproval, Sorrow and Despair, Layla’s Unwanted Wedding, and The Lovers’ Demise (as the supertitles helpfully describe the five separate “acts” of this seventy-minute work). The words of the songs, as conveyed to us in infrequent translations, are even starker: they mostly take the form of “I am burning up with love and my heart is broken” or its equivalent. We don’t need words, though, to understand and sympathize with these two lovers and their fate. The amazing voices and the intricate dance steps, all precisely and with great sensitivity timed to the music, are enough. This, remember, has always been Mark Morris’s strongest subject: not so much love (though he knows something about that) as dying for love. It is there in his brilliant Dido and Aeneas, and it is even there—in absentia, as it were—in the endings to his Hard Nut and his Romeo and Juliet, where the lovers don’t so much die as live and dance together forever, though only in the world of fantasy.

What was great about this piece was that it felt both alien and familiar at once. I have never heard a note of Azerbaijani music before, and yet I found the songs incredibly compelling. The dance steps combined both Western and Eastern patterns—I recognized a few Indian hand gestures, some rather Spanish kicks, a series of folk lines that derived from the various countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and, not least, a number of favored Mark Morris moves denoting love or sorrow or pain. The backdrop, a slash of bright colors designed by the late and much-missed Howard Hodgkin, was both modern and eternal; it too suited the sound and the mood. And while the pairs playing the lovers were terrific (I especially loved the moment in which Layla and Majnun “died” by simultaneously falling backward into the arms of their two sets of parents), it was the ensemble dancing in the background that struck me, this time, as Morris’s greatest achievement. Its range and precision, its felt power and its delicacy, its ability to follow the improvising singers and at the same time give them space, were evident in both the male and female lines, which merged at times but often remained separate. If this was “cultural appropriation,” as Morris teasingly referred to it during the White Light Lounge afterward, then please let’s have more of it.

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