State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
October 10, 2018

Fusing artistic genres is a challenging task, even more so when you attempt to cross cultures, languages and historical time periods. Layla and Majnun, a flagship event at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, is an artistic fusion of the highest order: an ancient Middle Eastern love story told through the music of an Azerbaijani composer played by an East-West chamber group and sung by traditional mugham vocalists, all of which is brought to choreographic life by 15 American dancers.

It’s an ambitious project that exceeds all expectations. Not only does the work truthfully represent the disciplines from which it takes its form, but it also offers something more than the sum of its parts. The result is wonderfully original and disarmingly beautiful.

Layla and Majnun, Melbourne FestivalLayla and Majnun. Photo © Mat Hayward

The dance-opera tells the ancient story of ill-fated childhood lovers, Layla and Majnun, who are denied a life together. Layla is married off; Majnun becomes a hermit; they are reunited only in death. It is an ancient fable that has permeated all art forms since the fifth century and remains widely celebrated throughout the Middle East, north Africa and western Asia.

The current take on Layla and Majnun is a collaboration between American choreographer Mark Morris and renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble. The latter have created an hour-long chamber style score based on the 1908 opera version of the love story by Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli. That opera – the first in the Middle East – featured traditional vocalists together with Western instruments and arias, a fusion that has been retained in the current iteration to great effect.

This production of Layla and Majnun is theatrical storytelling at its finest. Charged with primary responsibility for telling the tale are the two vocalists – Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana Qasimova – who sang in ‘mugham’ (a highly structured form of vocal improvisation and ornamentation). Sustained melancholic notes rung out between moments of rapid articulation, embellishment and intense flourishes. Featured traditional instrumentalists – Kojiro Umezaki on shakuhachi and Zaki Valiyev on tar – offered lively accompaniment, engaging in the same exciting improvisational filigree as the vocalists seated next to them.

Layla and Majnun, Melbourne FestivalLayla and Majnun. Photo © May Hayward

Fifteen of Mark Morris’ dancers – men dressed in blue tunics, women in long peach dresses – helped bring the story to life. Four different couples played Layla and Majnun over the five sections of the work, each representing a different stage of the couple’s ill-fated journey. The dancers oscillated between overt characterisation of the lovers (which helped anchor key plot points), and more abstract dance sequences as a unified ensemble.

The choreographic language was as broad as the influence of the ancient story it sought to tell. Using American modern dance technique as a foundation, the movement vocabulary included curved lines and small hand articulations from Indian classical dance, rhythmic and fast footwork familiar to South Asia, and Sufi whirling. Although the technical skill of the ensemble occasionally lacked consistency, the dancers did well to embody the breadth of Morris’ choreographic palette.

Layla and MajnunLayla and Majnun. Photo © Susana Millman

A major strong point of the choreography was its musicality. Renowned for his musical intuition and use of live musicians, Morris’ choreography not only connected with the music but actually enhanced it. At times, some of the dancers would move to one rhythmic structure, while others would dance to another. At other times, the movement carved its own rhythmic and tonal structures within the space created by a singer’s sustained note or a breath between musical phrases. The improvisational nature of mugham also meant that the dancers’ material was not entirely set. Instead, they engaged in a real-time collaboration with the vocalists and musicians; yielding a very present and live performance from all.

It is clear that this interpretation of Layla and Majnun has been deftly handled by a team of master storytellers. The succinct plotline, chamber-style opera format and semi-characterisations by the dancers, help deliver an emotionally potent vignette of an ancient tale. The work is a superb showcase of Morris’ musicality as a choreographer, and the vocals of Qasimov and Qasimova are stunningly beautiful. The sounds of the Silkroad Ensemble, of course, glue the work together. Fusion of genres seldom works this well. When it does, it deserves to be seen.


Layla and Majnun plays until October 13 at the Melbourne International Arts Festival

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine