Lord Byron once called Layla and Majnun the “Romeo and Juliet of the East.” Based on a real-life Arabic poet who was said to have lost his mind over his cousin, the story has had as many lives as a cat. Most famous is a twelfth-century version by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, which provided the libretto for the first Middle Eastern opera, by Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov, in 1908. Now the Mark Morris Dance Group is bringing its brand-new version of the work to Ann Arbor.
When they meet as students, Majnun is unwound by Layla’s beauty. The two fall quickly in love, but the bond so consumes them that their parents forbid them to see each other. When Layla’s family arranges her marriage to another man, Majnun moves into the wild, taking leave of his sanity.
Morris collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble to realize his vision of the story. In this production, musicians forgo the orchestra pit to join the dancers on stage, where an abstract backdrop by Howard Hodgkin is painted in rich tones of earth and heat. Hodgkin’s costumes, much like the music, combine traditional structure with Western elements in an attempt to create a universal story set on foreign soil. Accompanied by members of the Silk Road Ensemble, playing their revamped version of Hajibeyov’s score, revered Azerbaijani mugham singers Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova perform the libretto of devoted, requited, but unlived love.
Morris is celebrated for his impeccable musicality and use of live music, which makes him particularly suited to collaborations like this one. His choreography shows a scholarly attention to detail, and he often borrows from the archives of dance history to pepper a sequence with Baroque poses or to braid original steps into the traveling patterns of traditional folk dances. “He never plays tourist,” says Yo-Yo Ma. “Any tradition Mark incorporates becomes organic to his work.”
Above all, Morris likes his dancers to resemble humans more than sylphs, to tap into intelligence before virtuosity. With such modern movers on his palette, Morris creates dances that evolve like shifting geometric equations, which, over the course of an evening, reveal themselves as poems.
The University Musical Society brings Layla and Majnun to the Power Center Oct. 13-15.