Choreographer Mark Morris Puts 21st-Century Spin On 12th-Century Love Poem

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Performers Alim Qasimov (left) and Fargana Qasimova on stage during a 2008 performance of "Layla and Majnun" in Doha, Qatar. (Courtesy Silkroad)
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An ancient poem that’s sometimes called the “Romeo and Juliet” of the Middle East is being brought into the 21st century by choreographer Mark Morris, with the help of some musicians from Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad project.

Morris, whose evening-length work “Layla and Majnun” will premiere in Berkeley, California, this weekend, speaks with Here & Now‘s Robin Young.

Here are some of the source illustrations for the production, from the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. You can see the full gallery here.

Interview Highlights: Mark Morris

On the inspiration for the show

“It’s a piece of music that was called actually the first Muslim opera, and it premiered in 1908 in Baku, Azerbaijan. It was a young composer who spent a lot of time in Europe and in Russia. He was from Azerbaijan. Hajibeyli is his name. And he wanted to introduce the idea of opera to his home culture and so it was written for big western orchestra and some of the areas were done in the ancient style of Mugham singing, which is a kind of singing very very ecstatic. It’s a type of thing that’s all over the Middle East and…the steps of Central Asia as we can say. And [it’s] a big part of the Islam culture and it’s about two and a half hours and it’s a big spectacle, which I love.

But Mr. Qasimov and Mr. Ma together decided to bring this to, let’s say a western audience, in a smaller version. So it’s sort of a chamber orchestra of western instruments, Azerbaijan instruments, and these two singers, Alim and Fargana, who are wonderful together… And it’s a piece about an hour long. And I was asked if I would be interested in staging it as a full on stage production as opposed to merely a concert, but to actually present it as a show… They worked on the music a little bit, and I worked on my thoughts a little bit… Maybe just a couple of years ago, I decided to take it on as a full on dance opera.”

On live theater

“That’s what live theater is all about. That’s the thrill of it… It’s the danger of that that’s fascinating. I have to tell you, my dancers are, first of all, super, super smart. They recognized the text — we don’t speak Azerbaijan but recognize things… We take cues from singers, they take cues from us. So it’s all a little bit adjustable at the moment. And since we always work with live music, my dancers are especially alert and attuned to the variations that are possible.”

On the story and comparisons to “Romeo and Juliet”

“I will tell you something, that the sort of label of the ‘Romeo and Juliet of…’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ had sex before they didn’t, and Layla and Majnun are separated just before puberty. And the point is not that they’re deprived physical love, but that their love is exclusively in their heads and in their minds and in their devotion to each other.”

On the production’s message

“The timing of this doesn’t hurt. I mean I’m not trying to teach anybody a lesson — I’m presenting this piece which is about love. Everybody as far as I can tell in the world loves their children. And so, of course, it’s easy to cite this sort of Islamophobia, this bizarre word, this general bashing of each other, in many different categories between many different categories. It’s not a corrective; it’s an exposure to an aspect of a culture that a lot of western people, and not just Judeo-Christian western people, don’t have exposure to. The music is very, very appealing. The story is, of course, universal, like every good story. And I’d also say that people who aren’t used to hearing this kind of music — try it first of all. It’s incredible ecstatic and thrilling. It reminds me of very popular, a couple of decades ago, the Qawwali style of singing from Pakistan, the Sufi tradition… It’s the heart singing to another heart…”

Guest

Mark Morris, artistic director and choreographer at Mark Morris Dance Group. The group tweets @MarkMorrisDance.

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