Cal Performances ‘Layla and Majnun’ tells tragic love story with musicality

Layla and Majnun_Susana Millman%2FCal Performances%2FCourtesy
Susana Millman/Courtesy

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The tale is one of star-crossed lovers and a forbidden union, but it is no “Romeo and Juliet. In fact, it predates Shakespeare’s play by more than 1,000 years. Factor in madness, separation, an arranged marriage, a wandering spell in the desert and the backdrop of Bedouin Arabia, and you have the ultimate original story of ill-fated love.

On Saturday, Cal Performances presented the world premiere of “Layla and Majnun, a new full-length work from renowned choreographer Mark Morris. A combination of ballet, chamber concert and “mugham opera,” the show featured the stunning performances from the world-famous vocalist Alim Qasimov, his daughter and protégée Fargana Qasimova and the musicians of the Silk Road Ensemble. The music was a compilation of movements from the first piece of composed music created in Azerbaijan (composed by Uzeyir Hajibeyli) in the mugham style — a genre of traditional Azerbaijani music that includes a “naval” (frame drum), “tar” (lute) and “kamancheh” (spike fiddle).

“Layla and Majnun” is a canonical Arabian love tale that has been widely adapted throughout the Middle East in Muslim, Sufi and Hindu, as well as in various secular contexts. The narrative is usually identified with Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, who reworked the basics of the plot to include the “masnawi” (rhyming couplet), deepened the characterization and created the intricate story still read and performed today. Layla and Qays (who is called Majnun, or “possessed”), are childhood best-friends-turned-lovers prohibited from marrying due to Majnun’s reputation for his excessive public declarations of love. Manic and distraught, Majnun takes up an ascetic life in the desert, where he composes poetry about his beloved Layla. When Layla dies of a serious illness, Majnun travels to her gravesite, lies weeping upon the tomb and there exhales his final breath. Because their idealized and inimitable love transcends earthly desires, Layla and Majnun’s relationship has often been interpreted as a Islamic mystical allegory.

The transient, spiritual aspects of their bond were certainly evident in Mark Morris’ captivating choreography. Morris, who has been lauded by Time Magazine as “the most prodigiously gifted choreographer of the post-Balanchine era” again produced a work that was both enlightening and effusive in its musicality. The dancers of the Mark Morris Dance Group took turns each scene performing as Layla and Majnun (identifiable by their streaming white scarves), and were clothed in flowing garments — scarlet for the Laylas and blue tunics for the Majnuns. Throughout the work’s five scenes — “Love and Separation,” “The Parents’ Disapproval,” “Sorrow and Despair,” “Layla’s Unwanted Wedding” and “The Lovers’ Demise” – the Laylas and Majnuns executed parallel movements and symmetrical poses in an ingenious dance of hard-to-get that embodied the lovers’ physically and spiritually complementary natures.

Upholding his dedication to musicality, Morris drew attention to the complexities of the opera with his detailed choreography. The audience’s experience of the live music (performed by the Silk Road ensemble) was heightened by Morris’ attention to each plucked note or strummed beat; every leap, turn and extension timed and executed in glorious tandem with the melody.

The vocal roles of Layla and Majnun were performed by the aforementioned Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova, two of the world’s most prominent mugham singers. Seated next to each other at the center of the stage, the father-daughter duo was astounding in its vocal stamina and range — extending high notes and complicated improvised runs with haunting emotional force.

Morris also made imaginative use of the stage, which extended around the live musicians and vocalists, by regularly placing Layla and Majnun at opposite diagonals. They were constantly in the process of reaching and yearning across the gap created by the musicians, never fulfilling their passion by even the slightest touch or embrace.

In one particularly memorable sequence, Layla and Manjun repeated a series of alternating lunges and twirls in each other’s widely outstretched arms, neither one able to fully grasp the other’s fleeting presence. It was only in their death, enacted onstage by their graceful, simultaneous swoop backwards to the ground, that the two could unite.

Contact Madeline Zimring at [email protected].

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