By Mary Versa ’20
The Mark Morris Dance Group and Silk Road Ensemble collaborated to tell the story of Layla and Majnun (in the Hop’s Moore Theater January 6 and 7) in bold colors. The performance was a feast for the ears, eyes, and mind. Composers, musicians, choreographers, and dancers contributed layers of storytelling to this piece. Their work culminated in a rich and enriching experience for the audience.
Layla and Majnun is an Azerbaijani opera about the forbidden passion of a couple fated to be together only in death. Musically, it incorporates the improvisational genre of mugham. Per the post-performance discussion, mugham emerged from speech and, hence, is deeply intertwined with the Azerbaijani language. Singers Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova brought the poetry to life in complex tonal sequences. Some notes languished, while others lasted only long enough to usher in the next. The sound carried heavy emotion and bathed the audience in the characters’ feelings. The Silk Road musicians added to, in their words, “the pool of sound” that drew the audience into the world of the tale.
Mark Morris’ dancers attached visual movement to the music’s auditory motion. Pairs of dancers took turns playing Layla and Majnun, while the rest completed the ensemble. The choreography accentuated the lovers’ different stages of life in each of the pieces’ five sections. Layla and Majnun enjoy supple youth before entering tortured adolescence and, later, a dynamic meditation which ends in their deaths. Each new pair of dancers created the next mood of the narrative journey yet stayed true to the characters’ personalities. For instance, the quality of dancers’ arm movements followed the arc of the story: first carefree, then increasingly weighty, and finally easier but solemn. The dancers entered into the lovers’ tale, and the choreography brought the characters to life.
Beyond the captivating performance, I am in awe of this production as an intercultural and multimodal feat. The inventors behind this piece identify with various languages, art histories and sets of customs. Picture this: Azerbaijani musicians in traditional attire sang, accompanied by a global mix of instrumentalists playing Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Western instruments, amidst North American dancers. It is truly awesome that these people performed this piece in this way.
But above all, I left the theater with a solid experience of the story of Layla and Majnun. Despite their diverse backgrounds—or maybe because of them—all the involved artists united to tell a story. A love story.
About the contributor
I’m from Pittsburgh, PA. For middle and high school, I was a musical theater major at a public arts magnet school. I have never been able to decide whether I like singing, dancing, or acting most. At Dartmouth, I dance in the Dartmouth Dance Ensemble and sing in a choir at a nearby church. I enjoy rehearsing, performing, and experiencing live art—there’s nothing like it!