Originating around the ninth century in Persia, the story of Layla and Majnun was described by George Gordon, Lord Byron as “the Romeo and Juliet of the East.”
A tragic tale of young love unconsummated, it has appeared in various forms ever since, notably Azerbaijan’s first piece of composed music in 1908 by Uzeyir Hajibeyli. It is this work that Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble arranged as a chamber piece in 2007 before collaborating with US choreographer Mark Morris and artist Howard Hodgkin for this dance/opera.
Distilled down to 70 minutes it is a contemplative and intense work, ablaze with colour of Hodgkin’s vivacious set and costumes – blue for the men, orange for the women. Following a musical overture in which two singers and two musicians produce a mesmerising fusion of western and middle eastern elements that swoop and soar and ululate, the dancers flood the stage.
Given the presence of more musicians occupying the central stage the dancers must perforce perform behind them and at the side on raised platforms as well as in front of them. Inevitably, something is lost in the arrangement though Morris relies heavily on symmetrical composition to avoid confusion.
Divided into five short acts the story is told with brisk economy. The would-be lovers whose union is forbidden by their parents begin with joyful intoxication watched over by the ensemble moving in synchronised courtliness. When the residue of love gives way to despair their movements become more frantic and extreme – the deep bending sweeps and flailing arms perfectly illustrating their moods. Morris mixes eastern and western styles with fluency – Dervish whirls and classical steps, contemporary and temple dancing.
As the tragedy advances towards its fatal conclusion, the lovers are interpreted by other dancers – four of each gender – who each bring a different interpretation to their final moments. Never a slave to conventional technique, Morris’ work here is decorous and expressive and is enhanced immeasurably by Hodgkin’s designs and James F Ingalls’ sympathetic lighting that shades and brightens the colours like the sun rising and setting on the legendary lovers.