Sadler’s Wells, London
November 13, 2018
Every culture has its tales of doomed lovers kept apart by fate or society. One such couple few will have heard of are Layla and Majnun, a story expressed by the 12th-century Persian poet Neẓāmi Ganjavi, based on a semi-historical Arab story about 7th-century Bedouin poet Qays ibn Al-Mulawwah (Majnun) and his love since childhood, Layla bint Mahdi. But when she is married to another, he becomes a hermit, writing verses about his lost love. Despite attempts to meet, they die without ever realizing a relationship.
It’s a story has presented in many Middle Eastern cultures, Mark Morris basing his dance-opera collaboration with the Silkroad Ensemble on a 1908 Azerbaijani opera by Uzeyir Hajibeyov.
Morris’ Layla and Majnun opens with fifteen minutes of Azerbaijani music from two vocalists and two musicians (and the show is only seventy minutes in total). In its way, it is beautifully soulful, but it’s also not easy listening. “Our separation cannot last forever,” said the strategically placed screens. But with not a dancer in sight, it did start to feel like forever, although at least there is British artist Howard Hodgkin’s super backdrop to look at, with its great sweeps of bold, oversized brush strokes of deep blue and red.
Eventually, the main musicians appear, the former coming on two by two, and rather unnecessarily dragging things out still more. But then the dancers, and now accompanied by movement, the music sits much more comfortably. The Silkroad Ensemble are magnificent, although it’s the father and daughter singers Alim Qazimov (Majnun) and Fargana Qasimova (Layla) who steal the show.
Rather than having a single lead couple dancing, however, Morris opts for a new pairing for each of the first four mini-acts, with the fifth having no fewer than four Laylas and Majnuns all at the same time.
As always, Morris’ choreography is intensely musical with a lot of arm gestures that stretch and reach. There’s a lot of American-ised, Eastern dance references: lots of small quick steps, shimmering shoulders and breasts, sharp angles and whirling dervish-like spins. In among all this, occasional elegant balletic arabesques appear from nowhere, but there’s also a lot of standing around from the ensemble while whichever lead couple’s turn it is, performs.
While pleasing enough, it’s also terribly tame. It’s not in the least bit romantic. There’s only the vaguest hint of character (unlike from the excellent singers), and there are too many times when it’s just more of the same. The few more upbeat moments, especially one all-too-brief explosion of life in a fast, swirling ensemble dance come as a relief.
It has to be said, however, that having the musicians spaced as they are, in two groups, with the two singers centre, does Morris no favours. It seriously cuts down the dance space and significantly restricts the choreography options as the dancers are largely confined to performing in front of them and on raised platforms side and back. Presumably a nod to the story and maybe to its cultural origins, the ensemble men and women are largely kept apart.
On the plus side, Hodgkin comes up trumps again with the super costumes, identical tangerine numbers for all the women, blue and white for the men, the leads only differentiated by the wearing of a scarf.
The work does sort of grow on you a little, though. The best dance comes at the end in Act V, ‘The Lovers’ Demise’. As their hearts are filled with suffering, there’s a tormented solo from one Layla, followed by three others who perform their own take on her feelings.
At the end, one is left with the feeling that Layla and Majnun could have been, should have been, so much more; at least as a dance work. But then perhaps it’s better seen as something else entirely: a music event illustrated by dance; a different beast altogether.
Layla and Majnun is at Sadler’s Wells until November 17, 2018. Visit www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on for further details and tickets.