Forbidden love from Mark Morris

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday October 4, 2016
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The Mark Morris Dance Group gave the world premiere of <i>Layla<br>and Majnun</i> with the Silk Road Ensemble in<br>Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley. Photo: Amber Star
The Mark Morris Dance Group gave the world premiere of Layla
and Majnun
with the Silk Road Ensemble in
Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley. Photo: Amber Star

Critics came from all over for the world premiere in Berkeley last Friday of Layla and Majnun, a new danced cantata by Mark Morris, who has put some strange things on the stage before, but never anything quite this odd. At first, it seemed this was going to flop, but it quickly took hold, and by the end I was moved to tears, but so sad I could barely applaud.

The project was filled with obstacles: the stage itself is an obstacle course, since it is filled with the musicians around whom the dancers must flit and float like djinns never obstructed by material reality. Which, in fact, through their own amazing abilities, and the genius of Morris' choreography, they do, and leave the musicians and their instruments miraculously unendangered. All those difficulties surmounted stand in for the obstacles to the love of Layla and Majnun.

It is a very strange work. Morris is treating a story few of us know. The word Layla suggests Eric Clapton's intoxicating Beatles-era rock song, with its obsessive melody that loops back on itself like a passion that won't burn out. That song was once top of the charts, and once heard, it's never forgotten. But, though it is the same story, that mood is hardly timely. In hippie days, when Clapton fell in love with George Harrison's wife and wrote "Layla" to describe his passion for her, every hippie knew who Siddhartha was, and many knew of the mad passion of Majnun, who went out of his mind with love for Layla and lived in the desert writing heart-breaking poems in her praise.

These are new times, and now if we think of the deserts of Arabia, the mountains of the Caucasus, of Persia or Afghanistan, it's because of the wars there. It's no longer cool to go climb a mountain and speak to a guru and bring back a jacket made of yak-hide. Nevertheless, Morris is telling that kind of story all over again.

Morris dramatizes 10 episodes in the  tale, and in each one a different couple represents the lovers. A dance of love is noticed by the community, among whom Layla's hot-headed brother (Aaron Loux) begins a whispering campaign against them, which  strikes me as the gay element in this heterosexual story. They are noticed as being "too much," they are "exciting comment," there's something queer about that boy. "I think we'd better put a stop to this."

Morris builds the story, deploying his encyclopedic vocabulary of fold-dance steps. Since this tale belongs to the Turkic realms of Asia centering around the Caucasus, whose dance lore Morris studied in his youth with the Koleda folk dance ensemble and later with the dervish-based dances of Laura Dean, the dancers speak his language as if to the manner born.

The roles of the leads pass to a new pair in each movement of the music. Domingo Estrada, Jr. expresses love graphically in the second danced section, leading with his pelvis. Loux carries it much further in the third. Sam Black protests violently when Layla's family marries her against her will to a shallow young man, in a brilliant scene that perfectly captures the nightmare of having to marry the wrong man. This is followed by an elegiac ensemble piece for all four women who've danced Layla so far, each entering and dancing a solo in lamentation, each in succession letting their heads fall back as if their necks were broken, and advancing across the platform at the back of the stage, so they stand like columns in a temple dedicated to Arranged Marriage.

Each episode intensifies the mood of formalized doom, though each has its own mood. As in Swan Lake, you know this is going to turn out badly, but there are many gay episodes along the way; the nightmarish wedding is particularly thrilling in this respect, but Morris' invention is at genius level all the way through.

As with Romeo and Juliet, it is a tragedy not only for the principals but for their benighted families, who did not bet on their children committing suicide. Short-sighted, the families only saw disgrace and danger, but in the aftermath the sadness is universal and immeasurable. The last episode is very poignant.