Surely the highlight of this year’s White Light Festival (a yearly festival devoted to the spiritual dimension in the performing arts) at Lincoln Center, which took place October 28 - November 15, 2017 was the opportunity to see—as I did on the evening of Saturday, October 28th, at the Rose Theater (10 Columbus Cir, New York, NY)—the marvelous Layla and Majnun, a beautiful recent ballet by Mark Morris, one of the most celebrated contemporary choreographers.
The work is adapted from an opera from 1908 by Uzeyir Hajibeyli—written when he was twenty-three years old—and the founding work of modern Azerbaijani music. The libretto was adapted from a classic sixteenth century Turkish poem in the Azeri dialect written by Muhammad Fuzuli, itself based on famous pre-Islamic Arabic tales. The story tells of the timeless, mystical love and separation and reuniting in death of the two eponymous protagonists.
The score was condensed and rearranged for the Silk Road Ensemble in a version for ten musicians and two singers by Johnny Gandelsman, Colin Jacobsen, and Alim Qasimov, an Azerbaijani national treasure who sings the lead role of Majnun, alongside his student and daughter, Fargana Qasimova, who sings the part of Layla. The musicians remain onstage during the duration of the performance but the dancing is preceded by a purely musical prologue, a medley of Azerbaijani music based on Bayati Shiraz, one of the major Azerbaijani mughams, gorgeously sung by Kamila Nabiyeva and Miralam Miralamov.
Another distinguished credit belongs to the renowned, late British painter, Howard Hodgkin, a reproduction of one of whose paintings forms the backdrop for the ballet and who provided the costume designs. The production is dedicated to his memory.
Morris’s approach is highly abstract and de-dramatized, which ultimately produces a highly formalist effect. In addition to the outstanding musicians, he is well served by his excellent dancers who exquisitely realized his extraordinary choreography. All in all, this is probably one of the artist’s strongest works, and was a sumptuous event, both musically and visually.