If you head off to Sadler’s Wells this week expecting a contemporary piece from renowned American choreographer Mark Morris, you may be in for something of a surprise. For Layla and Majnun, Morris has collaborated with the Silkroad Ensemble, founded by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 1998 with mostly Eurasian musicians – cultural cross-fertilisation was definitely the aim here. And judging from last night’s performance, it’s worked.
The musicians play a mixture of western and Eurasian instruments and are centre stage throughout the evening. In fact, for the first 20 minutes just two singers and two musicians hold the stage – not a dancer to be seen – as they set the scene for the tragedy about to unfold.
This time around, the tragedy is a ballet but Layla and Majnun have a long history. Morris’s version is based on an opera by Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli who was inspired by a legend that had found its way into poetry and classical dance, folklore and painting for over a thousand years. The essence of the plot is simple. Two lovers are divided by their parents and the girl, Layla, is forced against her will to marry another man. The lovers are broken hearted and Majnun becomes a hermit, devoting his life to writing poetry about his love for Layla.
When the dancers do arrive, it’s in a blaze of colour – the women in dresses the colour of a flame, the men in blue and white shalwar kameez – behind them a backdrop of vibrant brushstrokes (all by Howard Hodgkin). They move around the musicians, the physical emanation of the story and the music, conveying waves of sorrow or the playfulness of love in movements taken from Sufi dervishes and Eurasian folk dance, merged with Morris’s own flowing contemporary style. The dancers are a Greek chorus, witnesses to the tragedy and they pick up characters and pass them on (there are four Laylas and four Majnuns) with all the fluidity of the music itself.
And the music? It’s not often you get to listen to a UNESCO recognised Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Azerbaijani mugham is exactly that. It is music that is based on improvisation and, while Hajibeyli’s original score separated his composed music from the mugham in this version, devised by Alim Qasimov who sing it with his daughter, Fargana, the two blend together. The sound is extraordinary – moving, mesmerising, luscious, quivering with emotion. Somehow, musicians, dancers and improvising singers come together in a way that Yo-Yo Ma described as “perhaps the finest example of group intelligence at work.” Hypnotic.
Layla and Manjun ran at Sadler’s Wells until 17 November. For more information, including details of their Autumn/Winter season for 2018/19, visit www.sadlerswells.com.