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‘Layla and Majnun’ – Grand and iconic ‘dance opera’ production of Asia’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ premieres in the UK…

‘Layla and Majnun’ – Grand and iconic ‘dance opera’ production of Asia’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ premieres in the UK…

A classic romantic tale, some great musical and dance talents and a rather unique cultural exchange – its creator celebrated choreographer Mark Morris tells acv what inspired him…

THERE’S an almost unprecedented and unusual combination of talents behind the forthcoming production of ‘Layla and Majnun’.

Premiering in the UK on November 13, one of the US’s most celebrated international choreographers and his dance outfit, Mark Morris Dance Group, return to Sadler’s Wells after five years with their latest creation, ‘Layla and Majnun’.

Mark Morris

The story of ‘Layla and Majnun’ is as famous in Asia, as ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is in Europe.

It is a love story: deeply romantic and set mostly in an other world where lovers’ dreams are never thwarted.

A timeless classic, Morris brings his unique sensibility to staging a spectacular production on the scale of a grand opera.

He has enlisted some of Central Asia’s finest musicians and singers and put this production together with Silkroad Ensemble.

Founded by the acclaimed cellist and songwriter Yo-Yo Ma (18 Grammy Awards) who also holds an Academy Award (2011) for the musical score in Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, this work contains a richness and abundance of emotion that rarely fails to move.

Inspired by the cultural exchange that occurred on the Silk Road (roughly from China to Turkey and the West), Ma, who is of Chinese origin, has brought together musicians from these regions to collaborate and work together.

This production sees two celebrated Azerbaijani ‘mugham’ singers lend their talents to ‘Layla and Majnun’.

Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova are well-known throughout the Central Asia region and mugham is a style of music that emerged from Azerbaijan and contains poetry and folk elements.

Poignantly too – is the scenic and costume design work by the iconic British painter, Sir Howard Hodgkin, who died last year. Both Morris and Hodgkin were drawn to region by the style of minature painting first, popularised by the Mughals in India but first developed in Persia.

Hodgkin had a long association with India, and spent his months before his death aged 84, painting in a specially adapted apartment in Mumbai and held a life-long fascination with the East.

Morris and his collaborators have taken the original work of Uzeyir Hajibeyli (1885-1948), the original writer-composer and adapted it, without changing its core essence.

Hajibeyli’s ‘Layla and Majnun’ is regarded as the first Islamic opera of its type, and Hajibeyli is described as the father of Azerbaijani music.

Morris told it was the music of the piece that drew him to make his version of ‘Layla and Majnun’.

“As always, I was first drawn to the music, and then text drives the music, The poetry. The Big picture,” he responded in an email Q&A exclusively with

He said he was further drawn to a story that was not much known in the West. In much of Asia the story is as ubiquitous as ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

Two years ago, Rifco, a British theatre company that specialises in diverse work from South Asia, and by British Asian creatives, produced ‘Laila – The Musical’ – the story has slightly different annotations due to the English transliteration – the company referred to it as ‘Laila and Majnu’. Many believe Shakespeare himself was inspired by this much older Persian tale, dating back to the seventh century.

Morris explained his interest: “It’s kind of fun to tell a story to a lot of people, especially if it is a new one to them.”

He said a period of study and examination followed once they had decided to take it on and most fell into place once a few decisions were made.

“Lots of research on the dances, music, gestures, costumes and influences.

“In many ways I find that the story and the dramaturgy (dramatic composition of a piece that is not dialogue-based) decides the sequence, casting and pacing thus reducing the number of decisions required,” Morris told acv.

He added that he hasn’t really changed the original by Hajibeyli.

“If anything, the cross-cultural tone of the piece is directly specified by Hajibeyli in every musical gesture. All good stories are readily accessible to everyone,” he declared.

Morris believes ‘Laila and Majnu’ inherent universality make it a powerful piece and it’s not even just one or two elements of the work but as a whole.

“It’s not just anything,” he said responding to our question about what the story might say to us on a cultural level.

“Read the poetry compare versions of the tellings. Irrestible!”

This production, while a UK premiere, is coming to the end of its two-year world tour. It has been performed in Melbourne, Chicago, New York and many other major cities in the world.

All pictures: ©Susana Millman

‘Layla and Majnun’ Mark Morris Dance, Tuesday, November 13-17, Sadler’s Wells, Roseberry Avenue, London EC1R
Box office: +44(0)207 863 8000


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Written by Asian Culture Vulture