The world-renowned choreographer (and native Seattleite) Mark Morris teams with YoYo Ma’s group for a new work of music and dance based on the Middle Eastern story “Layla and Majnun,” the Romeo and Juliet of Middle Eastern and Asian culture.
Few stories capture the hearts of people all over the world as reliably as one about ill-starred lovers. No matter that we all know the outcome of “Romeo and Juliet” — their plight perennially moves us.
Another of the world’s great love stories, “Layla and Majnun,” dates back long before Shakespeare. Its most famous literary expression, a verse romance by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, has been casting its spell over Middle Eastern and Asian audiences for nearly a millennium.
“It conveys a message of profound, abundant, eternal love,” Mark Morris says. The world-famous dancer, choreographer and director, who turned 60 in August, returns to his native Seattle with his latest creation, the dance theater work “Layla and Majnun.” Opening the season at Meany Center for the Performing Arts, it will run from Oct. 6 to Oct. 8.
Mark Morris Dance Group with The Silk Road Ensemble
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 6-8, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8, $48-$65, Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle (206-543-4880 or meanycenter.org).
“Layla and Majnun” was already a widespread tale in Arab folk tradition by the time Ganjavi treated it in the late 12th century. In love with each other since childhood, the couple are kept apart by Layla’s father. He forces her to marry a rich older man, but she remains faithful to Majnun.
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The name of her beloved literally refers to someone possessed or insane, for Majnun is consumed by his passion for Layla. As a wandering ascetic, Majnun composes verses to her and eventually learns of her illness and death. When he finds his way to Layla’s grave, he falls lifeless over it.
“It’s actually very different from Romeo and Juliet,” Morris points out during a phone interview from his dance company’s headquarters in Brooklyn. “It’s clear that Shakespeare’s lovers have sex and then kill themselves when they think they’ve lost each other. ‘Layla and Majnun’ are separated when they’re young and spend the rest of their lives pining for completion, which is only found through Allah.”
The intensity of Majnun’s passion, plus the fact that it can never be consummated, has been viewed as a spiritual allegory in the Sufi tradition of Islamic mysticism. For Morris, Majnun’s yearning “is the symbolic purity of unfathomable, selfless love. I’m not a religious fellow, but others might take that as the love of God, a devotion of absolute selflessness.”
The story of Layla and Majnun saturates Middle Eastern and Asian culture, much as that of Romeo and Juliet in the West: in countless retellings through literature, stage versions and films. It even inspired Eric Clapton’s classic 1970s song “Layla.”
A dozen dancers from the Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Group — including another native Seattleite, Aaron Loux — are touring as part of the production, which was commissioned by Cal Performances of UC Berkeley in association with the Meany Center and a handful of other organizations. Seattle will be the show’s second stop after its world premiere in Berkeley on Sept. 30.
Also on the creative team are the British abstract painter Howard Hodgkin, who designed the set and costumes, and lighting designer James F. Ingalls. Morris and his dancers are collaborating with musicians of the Silk Road Ensemble as well as Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova. The latter, a father-daughter team of singers from Azerbaijan, are leading exponents of the Central Asian style of singing known as “mugham.”
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma founded the Silk Road Ensemble in 2000 to promote intercultural understanding and artistic collaboration. “The Music of Strangers,” a documentary about the collective by the Academy Award-winning Morgan Neville, was released over the summer. (Ma is not part of this tour, but he’s coming to Seattle for a separate concert with the Seattle Symphony on Oct. 14.)
The Silk Road Ensemble first took on “Layla and Majnun“ in 2007, drawing on an opera from 1908 by Uzeyir Hajibeyov, an Azerbaijani composer who is also responsible for his country’s national anthem. UNESCO has described Hajibeyov’s production as “the first opera of the Muslim East.”
Silk Road members Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen distilled the 3.5-hour opera into a chamber scoring of an hour or so that mingles Western strings and percussion with Asian instruments.
The texts are sung in the disciplined improvisation that characterizes the mugham vocal style. “It’s not just free improvisation,” Morris explains. “Vocally it kind of reminds me of the flamenco singing style from Andalusia and of Qawwali, the devotional style of the Sufis in Pakistan.”
Morris declined when Yo-Yo Ma asked him to collaborate on the initial version Silk Road developed a decade ago. But with a few adjustments to the score made since then, he realized that the story could be enhanced with choreography. “And the time felt right as well,” he says. “I don’t generally believe in art being used as a political corrective. But the way Muslims are being mistreated today bothers me.”
As far as linking “Layla and Majnun” with his previous work, Morris remarks: “I can promise it is not going to be like something anyone has ever seen before!”