Sadler’s Wells Theatre
London

16 November 2018

Maggie Foyer

Mark Morris, always in search of a new musical experience, now turns east and teams up with the Silkroad Ensemble and the Azerbaijani story of Layla and Majnun. In one way this production is typical Mark Morris as the dancers move in his inimitable style: one that looks so laid back and easy you’d never guess the dancers went to class. But the concept is of the east. The love story is played out in formal poetic verse, the passions contained but nevertheless real.

Mark Morris Dance Group & Silkroad Ensemble: Layla and Majnun Photo: Susana Millman

Mark Morris Dance Group & Silkroad Ensemble: Layla and Majnun
Photo: Susana Millman

The performing space is shared: the dancers circle the musicians with singers, Fargana Qasimova as Layla and Alim Qasimov as Majnun, sitting cross-legged centre stage and leading the action with a presence that borders on the majestical. The raised platform behind and the adjoining stairs create a variety of levels, aiding the integration of music and dance and bringing a pleasing flow to the shape of the choreography.

The designs are by the late Howard Hodgkin and the austerity of the dancers’ costumes is offset by the vivid splash of colour in the backdrop, colours that are coded to change to suit the emotions and form a vibrant part of the whole. The music, initially a little strange to Western ears, is introduced in a long prequel to the action and the beauty of the Azerbaijani rhythms grow on you assisted by lively onstage performers.

Mark Morris Dance Group & Silkroad Ensemble Layla and Majnun Photo: Beowulf Sheehan

Mark Morris Dance Group & Silkroad Ensemble: Layla and Majnun
Photo: Beowulf Sheehan

The lyrics lose much in translation, written up in clunky phrases fortunately placed well to the side and leaving the better option of just watching the story unfold in poetic dance. Morris taps into the folk elements in his ensemble choreography finding new elements and movements. However the most emotional expression is given to the roles of the lovers. These roles are shared between four couples, identified by a symbolic scarf passed on as the next chapter unfolds and a new couple brings a different flavour to the relationship of thwarted passion and forced separation.

The story is tragic, as the love of Layla and Majnun is never requited but Morris has scored again in this simple and eloquent telling of the tale.