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Mark Morris Dance Group's “Layla and Majnun” Effective Cross-Cultural Programming

by Joanna G. Harris
October 3, 2016
Zellerbach Hall
Bancroft Way at Telegraph
(2430 Bancroft Ave.)
Berkeley, CA 94704
Joanna G. Harris Author, Beyond Isadora: Bay Area Dancing, 1916-1965. Regent Press, Berkeley, CA, 2009. Contributor to reviews on culturevulture.net
Mark Morris, known for his attention to music, has, for this occasion, joined forces with The Silk Road Ensemble and various storytellers and singers, to bring us the ancient Azerbaijani story of “Layla and Majnun.”

The history of the story is long and complex. It has been told in Persian by Nezami Ganjawi, (1140-1209 CE). It is through his authorship that this mystical and tragic love story is best known. There are many versions: it has been told throughout Arabia, Turkey, India and beyond.

Morris, with the recommendation of Yo-yo Ma, has collaborated with the musicians and singers to bring “Layla and Majnun” to UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall as a dance event, September 30 - October 2. Yet
the musicians and singers held center stage while the dancers filled the surrounding space, ramps and risers, with a series of walking pageants and occasional duets.
As the story progressed, the unrequited meetings and partings of the fateful couple were illustrated in the dance.

Set against a huge color abstract backdrop by Howard Hodgins, the dancers, in costumes by the same artist, moved in smooth processions around the singers. There were few changes in dynamics, except for occasional jumps.
Couples met, touched hands, embraced and parted, illustrating the inevitable separation and doom the characters faced.

Domingo Estrada, Jr. and Nicole Sabella in their duet, were most expressive of the lovers’ plight through balances, tilts, efforts at embrace and elongated separation.

The Mark Morris Dance Group is composed of very skilled performers who accomplished the presentation of the dramatic forces in the text and music. The usual balletic-modern dance vocabulary characteristic of Morris’ work, was exchanged for more modest expressions of balances, falls and postures to illustrate the text and the quality of the singing. It was another dimension of Morris’ fascination with cross-cultural material.

The dancers were: San Black, Rita Donahue, Domingo Estrada, Jr., Lesley Garrison, Lauren Grant, Brian Lawson, Aaron Loux, Laurel Lynch, Stacy Martorana, Dallas McMurray, Brandon Randolph, Nicole Sabella, Billy Smith, Noah Vinson and Michelle Yard. They are superb.

The vocalists were Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova. The music was sung in Azerbaijani with English titles.
Mark Morris Dance Group in Mark Morris' “Layla and Majnun.”

Mark Morris Dance Group in Mark Morris' “Layla and Majnun.”

Photo © & courtesy of Susana Miller

Mark Morris Dance Group in Mark Morris' “Layla and Majnun.”

Mark Morris Dance Group in Mark Morris' “Layla and Majnun.”

Photo © & courtesy of Susana Miller

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