The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Opera House
Washington, DC

March 22, 2018

Carmel Morgan

There are Mark Morris devotees who think the choreographer can do no wrong. I’m candid about my appreciation for Morris’s choreography, in general, but I also have an open mind. It would be difficult for every work of his to be a hit with me. Although it’s rare, on occasion there are Morris pieces I don’t like very much. Yet even when I’m not completely won over, a less than stellar Morris work usually isn’t too bad. I still believe he’s among the best living choreographers. So, can you see where I’m going already? Morris’s Layla and Majnun isn’t one of the works I’d rank among his best.

What’s undeniably great about Layla and Majnun are the musicians and the music — the Silkroad Ensemble playing Uzeyir Haijbeyli’s 1908 opera along with mugham singers Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana Qasimova, plus a medley of Azerbaijani music: Bayati Shiraz, which opened the evening. That’s really more than enough to make seeing Layla and Majnun, a Romeo and Juliet type timeless tale of ill-fated love, worthwhile. It’s understandable that some people sitting in the audience may have thought they were in the wrong place because the dancers took such a long time to finally appear on stage. The introductory medley, with two singers and two instrumentalists, perfectly foreshadows the roller coaster passionate but forbidden love, but it lasts many minutes. The voices and instruments alike magically vibrate.  

From this extended musical prelude, I quickly got the idea that the stars of Layla and Majnun aren’t the dancers of Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG). The dancers frankly act more like an element of decor. Morris has a deep love for both music and movement, yet here the music clearly ends up on top. That’s nearly always going to disappoint someone like me, who hungers for superb dancing. The music touched me, and I enjoyed it tremendously. The dancing didn’t wriggle into my soul, though, so I left the theater feeling somewhat let down.

The Silkroad Ensemble occupies the center of the stage, as do the vocalists. The vocalists, who are seated on a raised platform, are well lit and remain the focus of attention, but the more darkly lit ensemble fades into the background (lighting design by James F. Ingalls). I wanted them all brightly illuminated! I was enrapt enough by the music that I began to ignore a lot of the comparatively lackluster dancing, which takes places around the musicians, often on the sides of the stage, on a series of broad steps, to concentrate on the expression of the non-dancing artists.  

The costumes, designed by Howard Hodgkin and realized by Maile Okamura, a former MMDG dancer, don’t particularly flatter the dancers. The bright reddish-orange long dresses for the women, and bold blue tunics for the men over white pants, are each in fabrics that have a sort of tie-dye effect. The costumes look marbled or mottled as a result, and the volumes of fabric extensively cover the bodies of the dancers. It’s nice that the women can swoosh their long skirts, grasp the bottom edge and drape the excess material in a waterfall by holding it against their hearts. Yet I think I’d prefer a simpler costume in a solid color that more closely traces the body’s contours.

The scenic design, also by Hodgkin, doesn’t seem quite right, either. In fact, the huge splotches of primary colors at the back of the stage look out of place. I like that the backdrop is very modern in contrast to the ancient love story being told. The oversized childlike painting, however, for me, just adds unnecessary visual competition to an already very busy stage.             

But back to the dancing. MMDG’s dancers are talented, but the choreography for Layla and Majnun doesn’t provide them with much of an opportunity to show off their prowess. It’s curious that their movement tends to be, well, rather plain. Perhaps Morris was concerned about overwhelming the music? The musicians are so incredibly moving and powerful that the dancers look insubstantial next to them. Stronger dancing would match the energy of the musicians, not detract from it.

I was a bit bothered, too, by some of the choreography that resembles poses lifted from Middle Eastern art or religious spins — for example, dancers lazily reclining with one bent knee sticking up at an angle or twirling like dervishes, arms outspread. I suppose this kind of movement fits the theme. There’s just something odd about Azerbaijani vocalists singing music that’s so important to their culture, and having, instead of actual folk dancers and dancing from that region, a strange facsimile of what must look ethnically appropriate to a Caucasian choreographer danced by MMDG’s dancers who hail primarily from the United States.

If I had to single out two dancers who seemed to break free and connect more intimately with the music and story, it would be Durell R. Comedy, who sizzled with emotion as Layla’s unwanted husband, and Aaron Loux, who in Act III, titled “Sorrow and Despair,” truly showed just that. Otherwise, the dancers struck me as restrained, and the choreography as carefully crafted instead of sincere and organic. It took only a glance at the amazing vocalists to see evocative drama in just a raised hand. The singers seemed to be genuinely on fire, while the dancers seemed to be self-consciously interpreting the music, sometimes awkwardly appearing as if they were acting in a drama, executing gestures, rather than setting into motion the feelings the music imparts.

What I do think works choreographically are the multiplicity of Laylas and Majnuns. Different dancers take turns embodying the roles and exchange scarves to signify who is performing the role at a particular time. And much of the movement repetition works well, too. The twinned arabesques of Layla and Majnun reaching an arm toward each other beautifully repeats again and again. There’s also a stunning sequence in which the dancers are seated cross-legged around the stage’s perimeter, men together on one side, women on the other, and engage in a series of upper body gestures that are sometimes in a canon and then eventually join in satisfying unison.

In sum, see Layla and Majnun for the fabulous music. If you want to see an operatic Morris work in which the dancing keeps up with dynamic, compelling music and more sensitively reflects it, see Dido and Aeneas, which is a masterpiece.