The choreographer Mark Morris’s latest work is a rendering of Layla and Majnun, an Azerbaijani opera composed by Uzeyir Hajibeyli in 1908. This fall it launched Cal Performance’s season, premiering at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley on September 30. Layla and Majnun may be the most exotic and obscure score that Morris (who’s renowned for his eclectic musical taste) has ever set a dance to. No doubt many in Baku would take issue with my characterizing it as exotic and obscure: Hajibeyli’s opus was the first piece of composed music created in Azerbaijan and the first opera in the Muslim world, where it’s still considered a foundational work. Its story is simple: it relates, with mystic overtones and an undeniably fatalistic worldview, the tribulations of a boy and a girl in love who are not permitted to marry and thus die of despair.
Hajibeyli based his libretto on a poem by Muhammad Fuzuli, a sixteenth-century philosopher. Fuzuli, in turn, was borrowing from a set of legends and folktales known throughout the Middle East. Unlike the tragic love stories we’re most familiar with, there’s little in the way of context, at least in this version: no tribal conflict in Verona or East Harlem, no court intrigue at Camelot or Mayerling, no sorcerer or vengeful sprite in sight. Layla’s mom and dad think, with some apparent justice, that Majnun’s a bit crazy. They marry her off to someone else. She dies. He dies. End of story. Given this, and the lack of physical consummation (one reason the tale is sometimes interpreted as an allegory of the spirit), Layla and Majnun is a relatively tame affair in terms of action, however deep its currents of feeling may run.
Hajibeyli’s original work runs three times the length of Morris’s, which has not only been slenderized to sixty-five minutes but newly scored to feature traditional Middle Eastern instruments such as lutes, frame drums, and spike fiddles alongside Western strings and percussion, all of which accompany two emphatically astounding vocalists. The ten musicians of the Silk Road Ensemble and the singers, Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova, are situated squarely center stage. In a sense, they’re both the stage set and a set of conditions around which the dancing has to take place. A raised platform along the back, two lower wings on the sides, and some space in front and in behind the musicians and singers form a multilevel, figure-eight runway within which movement can occur. The awkward arrangement brings to mind the skewed perspective of, say, a Persian miniature’s walled garden.
Sir Howard Hodgkin’s scenic and costume design are eye-popping. Bold swashes of red and green explode over the backdrop. The women’s dresses, marbled in bright orange and white, bell out beautifully whenever they whirl in vigorous Sufi-like trances, which is often. The men wear fetching white salwars tapering severely to the ankle with tunics of royal blue. (Thus attired, one looks strikingly like the young Omar Sharif.) Dancers alternate in the parts of the two lovers, passing white silk scarves along between episodes to signal this change—like flag football in reverse. Radiantly expressive, these handsome youths and maidens might have stepped out of Heath Robinson’s Arabian Nights.
The singers take pride of place in this production, and deservedly so. Qasimov, a Living National Treasure in Azerbaijan, has passed on to his daughter spellbinding mastery in a musical tradition where filaments of chromatic melody spin out like undulous caravan trails into hypnagogic distentions. Voice may be more compatible than movement with the inwardness of this plaintive, emblematic material, about which Morris must have been aware since he weighed for so long whether this piece might be staged. What he’s given us, with its outlandish brio and bedazzling panache, is not so much a dance concert as an extravagant hot pot of stimuli, generous, steamy, forceful, and rich, in a composite form inspired, no doubt, by the performance tradition it draws upon. It puzzles as it beguiles because its strangeness is both ancient and new.
Jeff Seroy is senior vice president at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and one of the Daily’s correspondents.