“Layla and Majnun” is the biggest love story you’ve never heard of. Once dubbed “the Romeo and Juliet of the East,” the ancient Persian tale has a rich, winding history, with regional versions sprouting across Pakistan, Turkey, India and more throughout the centuries. Its titular characters are star-crossed lovers whose passion abounds even as fate and their families conspire to keep them apart.
The version on show here reworks an Azerbaijani opera composed by Uzeyir Hajibeyli in 1908, with the score delivered by Silkroad, the transnational ensemble founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It’s a ripe choice for American choreographer Mark Morris, long known for his commitment to live music and frequent collaborations with musical collectives. Here the orchestra isn’t sequestered in the pit but featured centre stage, Morris’s dancers skirting the perimeter. The musicians’ prominence is well-deserved; it’s a pleasure the see them in action as they awaken and sculpt the luxurious notes of the score, particularly the singers, Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana Qasimova, who give voice to Layla and Majnun’s individual yearning. A downside of this set-up, though, is a stifled dance contingent, the cast left with little room to animate the tragedy at hand.
An intimate medley of Azerbaijani mugham music precedes the show’s five sections, one for each chapter of the lovers’ story, from their initial separation to their doomed reunion and demise. Cloaked in flickering candles, the stage glows with hushed, melancholy drama. The singing is theatre in itself, a zigzag of melodious warbling, the vocalists’ throats, hands and torsos fully engaged. The musicians, too, provides a spectacle, wheedling away on a caboodle of instruments that takes in cellos and violins alongside Iranian tars and Chinese pipas.
Unfortunately, the dancing rarely rises to such heights. While it’s lovely, with pretty shapes and twirling fluidity, it’s hard to see the intensity of the libretto—so present in the musicians’ impassioned tenor—reflected in the pastoral choreography that dominates much of the show. “Your movements tantalise me!” our protagonists exclaim. “My soul is on fire because we are apart.” The moves that accompany these fevered admissions are sweet where they should be striking, particularly in the first section, which depicts a tame courtship at odds with the one the heated affair the singers describe.
As the story progresses through Layla’s eventual marriage to someone else, the choreography deepens with clearer gestures at desire and despair: hunched silhouettes, wily shimmies, sculpted arabesques. The fingerwork of “The Parents’ Disapproval” hints at classical Indian technique and follows the delicate trills of the vocals as Layla pleads with her family to understand her love for Majnun. “Sorrow and Despair,” meanwhile sees the cast’s 12 dancers link arms to form an arresting train, whipping their hair and rolling their necks as she laments her smouldering heart.
Different pairs take turns depicting Layla and Majnun’s relationship as it evolves—a neat gesture at the universality of story and its endurance through the ages. Domingo Estrada, Jr. is evocative in his affection, barely touching his partner yet establishing a tender connection all the same. Lesley Garrison also stands out, best when she’s slicing her arms and wrenching her posture in anguish. The dance ensemble hits its highest notes in her section, delivering stuttering bourrées and dashing, arching floorwork.
The show is richly designed, the cast a vivid, stirring blur of peach and cerulean. But it’s the music that does the real legwork; the dancing is too often mild, cautious, lacking the fire that Layla and Majnun’s heartbreak warrants.