Performers: The Mark Morris Dance Group and the Silkroad Ensemble
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
While not quite the national anthem of Azerbaijan, Uzeyir Hajibeyli’s Leyli and Majnun, first produced in 1908, is lauded as the first Islamic opera. It comes to Sadler’s Wells in a shortened version that is part opera, part dance and part art installation. Although difficult to appreciate at first, this joint production between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Silkroad Ensemble has hypnotic qualities.
Played out in front of a vast screen projecting a colourful painting by Howard Hodgkin Layla and Majnun is a huge undertaking with 14 dancers and 12 musicians performing. Although they are not all on stage at the same time, the dancers’ space is compromised, but Morris’s tight and elegant choreography doesn’t need an empty floor. Dressed in costumes that complement Hodgkin’s generous brushstrokes – the male dancers in blue, and the female in peach – they provide images to the tale of Layla and Majnun, two lovers forced apart by their families. The story is similar to Romeo and Juliet, but predates it by 1, 000 years and has been a staple in the oral tradition of many Arab and South Asian countries.
Initially, the dancing influenced by ballet and folk dancing, is as overwrought as the libretto, which we get snippets of as subtitles. The line, ‘ My only wish is to perish in the world of love’, is a pretty good indication of the emotions represented on stage. However, when the lovers are separated the dancing with its symmetry and repetitions matches the melancholy of the music, and the results are as comforting as an old ticking clock.
But perhaps more than the dancing, it is the music by Silkroad Ensemble that shines brightest here. The musicians and the singers are part of the mugham tradition, a genre that spreads across the Middle East and Central Asia. Usually, mugham is performed by a trio; a singer, and two musicians playing a tar and a kamancheh, but under Alim Qasimov, Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen’s arrangement more instruments have been added to create a stunning spectacle. Qasimov is a big force in mugham, and he and his daughter Fargana sing the part of Majnun and Layla in this production, and quite righty they receive the biggest applause.
At 75 minutes Layla and Majnun is a theatrical treat for both the ears and the eyes, and it’s very different from the modern dances usually shown at Sadler’s Wells. There is something old-fashioned, ancient even, about this production, and it’s easy to be seduced by the haunting rhythms of the both the musicians and the dancers.
Runs until 17 November 2018 | Image: Beowulf Sheehan