Mark Morris & Silkroad Ensemble present Layla and Majnun @ Harris Theater

3 stars out of 4

 

Layla and Majnun is a story with a lot of history. Uzeyir Hajibeli based his 1908 opera on a 16th century poem by Mohammed Fuzuli, who was inspired by a 12th century Persian story, itself based on earlier Arabic sources. The story (a Romeo and Juliet-like tale of ill-fated lovers) has been rendered into many versions of visual art, cinema, and music. For the first time, it now enjoys a new form of artistic interpretation: dance. Mark Morris Dance Group collaborates with Yo Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble in a unique, condensed version to bring a kinesthetic element to this much-lauded piece of culture. Much of the complexity of the plot and possible mystical Sufi allegory are lost in this version, but other things are gained: a unique chance to see first-rate musicians and dancers collaborate in a truly multicultural, multidisciplinary work.

 

The evening begins first with music: mugham, a genre of music from Azerbaijan, is an improvised modal music passed down orally. Two vocalists and two instrumentalists show off their improvisation skills (insufficiently mic’d, the sound was quite soft and did not quite fill the Harris’ large auditorium). For Layla and Majnun, a larger chamber group arrives, headed by revered Azerbaijani vocalists Fargana Qasimova and Alim Qasimov, a father-daughter duo. Their gorgeous voices are a true treat. 17 dancers join the stage, and several individuals take turns representing the lovers. It’s an ensemble work, with most of the cast onstage most of the time, often reclining into poses reminiscent of courtiers listening to recited poetry. Morris’ background as a prolific creator of ballet is evident in the story ballet quality of the piece; the dancers act and gesture almost as much as they dance. The musicality of the choreography and the incorporation of movement vocabulary from the Caucuses both stand out. (In the dance world, Mark Morris Dance Group has a quite a unique commitment to live music, featuring it in every performance since 1996). Wonderful set design by Howard Hodgkin employs multi-leveled platforms that smartly allow the dancers to ring the musicians, both enjoying moments in the spotlight. Though the poetry of the libretto is melodramatic, the stuff of timeless opera, somehow the total effect failed to move me beyond an intellectual appreciation of the thoughtful elements that made up the whole. Somewhat tame, this beautifully conceived production just needed a bit more spice.

 

Mark Morris and Silkroad Ensemble play March 16 & 17 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance (205 E. Randolph St.). Call the box office at 312-334-7777 or visit www.harristheaterchicago.org for tickets and more information.

Susanna is a Teaching Artist with Chicago's finest dance education companies, exposing hundreds of students to the art of dance each year. She holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Dance from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, where she was awarded the David Wick Prize for Choreography. Susanna enjoys performing, keeping up with the city's performance scenes, and traveling.