Melismas: Aural Filigree and Mark Morris at Zellerbach Hall

While Cal Performances was competing with San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Blue Grass Festival this Berkeley venue presented an awesome array of events connected with the latest world premiere of a Mark Morris work at Zellerbach Hall, September 29-October 2.

Morris possesses a wide-ranging fascination with music; this time the world premiere of Layla and Majnun, Uzeyir Hajibeyli’s 1908 opera, was augmented by the Mark Morris dancers with the vocal embellishments of Majnun Alim Quasimov and Layla Fargana Quasimova, father and daughter from Azerbaijan. Supported by the ten-person Silk Road Ensemble, the result was a fascinating glimpse into central Asian traditions and a folk tale known throughout Central Asia, the Middle East and parts of India since the 12th century with the oral tradition given a formal frame by Nesami Ganjawl, 1140-1209 CE.  Even the endings of the singers names, “ov” for the father, “ova” for the daughter speaks to the Russian practice while the name Fargana, reminds one of horses so prized by Chinese dynastic rulers and nobles.  Of course, their names  also reflected the principal  characters, the doomed lovers, who, unlike Romeo and Juliet, never physically consummate their passion.

Elaborating on the tradition of musicians on stage with dancers, de rigeur in Indian dance, Morris placed them center stage, the dancers moving in front, on either side and back and above the exponents of the shakuhachi, the tar, pipa, violin, viola, cello and base.  After a quartet provided a medley of Azerbaijani tunes, their center seats were assumed by the Quasinovs, Fargana in a commanding scarlet robe and habib.  Assisting the audience were high placed supertitles, announcing the various sections.


Morris as director decided to separate the course of Hajibeyli’s opera into five sections casting eight of his dancers, two to each of the four acts in the roles of Layla and Majnun. Clothed in modified Indian garments and cast as Majnun, the men wore white trousers, blue tunics and lengthy white scarves.  Maile Okamura, a former Morris dancer turned costumer, selected the irregular tie dye tradition of Samarkand to create flowing orange hued garments for the dancers portraying Layla, also reflected by Lauren Grant and Noah Vinson as Layla’s parents.

The backdrop consisted of giant swirls of red superimposed over blue applied like a gigantic stroke of calligraphy, somehow never being completed.  Lighting, designed by
James F. Ingalls, provided the sweeping image  with a glow and shadings depending on the vocal development and stage movement.

Act I Love and Separation, Stacy Martorana as Layla, Dallas McMurray as Majnun set the stage with tenderness and diffidence, movements of closeness short of physical embrace.  Act II depicts The Parents’ Disapproval, with Nicole Sabella and Domingo Estrada, Jr as the thwarted lovers, Lauren Grant and Noah Vinson as Layla’s parents.  If you want to be secular about it, Layla’s parents think Majnun’s intensity demonstrates signs of being bi-polar.  In Sorrow and Despair, Act III, Laurel Lynch and Aaron Leux express their distress at the marriage contract Layla’s parents have reached, effectively sealing off contact between the lovers. Lesley Garrison and Sam Black are the fated lovers in Act IV, Layla’s Unwanted Wedding with Darrel R. Comedy as the Husband, who is unable to consummate the marriage because of Layla’s steadfast love for Majnun.  The finale, Act V, The Lovers’ Demise, connect all four pairs of lovers and adds Michelle Yard and Billy Smith as Majnun’s Parents.

Picture, if you will, the swirling ankle length orange dresses, Layla with an orange scarf to identify her from the other women in the ten person ensemble, Majnun himself identified by a lengthy white scarf. Early on Majnun’s dance includes beautiful arabesques and modified attitude turns as emblems of his love and passion, echoed modestly by Layla’s arabesque, but she is largely confined to circling turns and port de bras opening into first position and just occasionally a hint of abhinaya or filigreed hand gestures.  As usual, Morris tells his understanding simply, using sections of the stage to indicate barriers, frustrations as well as tender contacts.


Stationed at various locations were candles encased in glass, an echo of the tribal tradition of firelight story telling.  At the end of Act V Layla’s parents walk ceremoniously to two such candles, mount mid-way upstage, extinguish the flame and walk off stage. It was to make the heart sigh.

Cal Performances’ program cover featured the reproduction of a delicate Persian miniature and additional images within, courtesy of the Walters Art Museum, with musician and dancer credits and reproductions of images of the legend from Hindi movies and Majnun’s interpreter in its 1908 premiere.   Clearly, nothing had been spared and selections were paeans to the pervasive influence of this legend, including an essay by Wali Ahmadi of U.C.,Berkeley’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, incorporating not only the folk history, and Nasami’s organization of the disparate strand of the oral tradition, but also its extension into Sufi mysticism and the love of Allah.

The listed fiscal support was simply staggering, both admirable and necessary for a work of this magnitude; included were the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project, but the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Henry Luce Foundation, The Trust for Mutual Understanding, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

This magical work will be seen in Seattle October 6-8; then it’s on to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and later to New Hampshire. Unspecified future dates include the Kennedy and Lincoln Centers, Australia and Sadler’s Wells, London.


Author: mywesterneye

Has written about dance in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1962 with sporadic credits of reviews in The Christian Science Monitor, Oakland Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, California Living [S.F. Examiner], Hills Publication. San Francisco Correspondent for Dance Nes, 1962-1983 when it ceased publication; also for Dancing Times. Various writing in Dance Chronicle, CORD Journal, The Asian Reporter [Portland OR], Hokubei Mainichi, Asian Week, Korean Culture, and English language versions of The Korea Times, and Thought [New Delhi]. Wrote for, 1999-2011.

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