Dance and Music Speak the Heart: Two Generationsby Susan Yung
Layla and Majnun, Mark Morris Dance Group
Stabat Mater, Jessica Lang Dance
2017 White Light Festival
When Mark Morris has the opportunity to choreograph on a large scale, he has historically created some monumental pieces—L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato; Grand Duo; The Hard Nut; and Mozart Dances, to name a few. The 2017 White Light Festival marked the chance to see the newest of such pieces: the New York premiere of Layla and Majnun, choreographed and directed by Morris, featuring the Mark Morris Dance Group with the Silk Road Ensemble. Layla and Majnun are key figures in Persian/Arabian legend, and the focus of the first Muslim opera. The libretto is based on an ancient poem by Muhammad Fuzuli, and the score was written by Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli (1885 – 1948) about a century ago. Both words and music are transportive and timeless, and provide a lattice-like, hypnotic setting for Morris’s movement, which is fluid and elegiac. It also expands the range of Morris’s full-length works into less familiar turf.
The story is simple. Layla and Majnun are in love, but she is forced into an arranged marriage to another man; heartbreak ensues. Morris is clever in casting the four pairs of dancers; each duo dances a section in which distinct and divergent feelings and psychological undercurrents are expressed through the dance. The designees wear long scarves to signify that they’re “it.” The first (Mica Bernas and Dallas McMurray) are youthful and carefree. The second (Nicole Sabella and Domingo Estrada Jr.) meet with their parents’ disapproval, and display fierce defiance. The third (Laurel Lynch and Aaron Loux) are subsumed in sorrow and despair—he holds his leg aloft as his body torques away in daring tension. The fourth Majnun (Sam Black) must endure the unwanted wedding of Layla (Lesley Garrison) to a feckless suitor; his desperate passion is palpable. In the fifth and final act, all of the Laylas and Majnuns mourn the unrequited love. A pair falls backwards suddenly, as if dropping dead from grief. It’s shocking.
The singers portraying Layla (Fargana Qasimova) and Majnun (Alim Qasimov) are seated cross-legged between two instrumentalists. Their wailing vocal lines float above, flutter around, and puncture the theater’s space. Supporting instrumentalists play strings and percussion, fleshing out the orchestration. A different quartet of singers and musicians opened the evening with a musical set, easing the audience’s transition from the frenzy outside.
The mise-en-scène is unusual for Morris—the musicians are seated in three clusters, one downstage center, the other two upstage and to each side. The movement is constrained largely to the perimeter on platforms and steps, and in between the two groups of musicians, forming an infinity loop and a square. This configuration asks for movement that minimizes traveling, such as spins, extensions of the limbs, and active upper bodies. There are the periodic leaps and chains of steps that transport the dancers around the pathways; these rushing passages can feel like emotional or dramatic fulcrums. That Morris chose to limit the area of movement speaks to the prominence he has consistently given to music.
Howard Hodgkin (1932 – 2017) designed the scenery: a giant brushy abstraction of red and green, and the costumes: washy red dresses for the women, and blue tunics over white pants for the men. The dress necklines vary, but all flare out when the dancers spin like dervishes. Morris, as is typical for him, inserts bits of folk dance and gesture—as when the couple places their hands over their hearts to signify their love and lean back-to-back, heads resting on one another’s shoulders. His plainspoken movement works in tandem with the atmospheric music to get at the romantic, then tragic, heart of the story.
A few days later, as part of the White Light Festival and again in the Rose Theater, Jessica Lang Dance performed Lang’s 2013 Stabat Mater. The 1736 score by Pergolesi is performed by Orchestra of St. Luke’s, conducted in the pit by Speranza Scappucci, and sung onstage by soprano Andriana Chuchman and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. It’s difficult to overlook the comparison between Lang’s piece and the many operas Morris has choreographed (not to mention shorter repertory pieces) simply because he has often used works of early music. In fact, he choreographed to this piece of music in 1986 in his first large-venue program in New York, at BAM. There are abundant similarities between Morris and Lang, starting with an essential musicality and reverence for the accompanying score, and largely fluid and organic movement, but there are distinctions too.
In Stabat Mater, rather than Mary mourning the loss of her son, Jesus, Lang has the characters refer to any woman losing a child. Lang, as is her wont, emphasizes the visual design, including interaction with onstage elements. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg designed the eye-popping set—two enormous desiccated tree trunks whose lengths span the width of the stage. They rise, fall, and bisect, at moments forming a massive cross. In the opening scene, and evocative of Martha Graham’s Lamentation, a woman cloaked in a length of taupe fabric also resembles, in color and draping, a madonna statue; her pose echoes one of the trees. The fabric manifests as a hood-and-cloak for four women, or a rope with which to bind. At one point, it’s draped bunting-style over the tree, which then rises—the fabric a relic of a lost soul literally hanging over the proceedings.
The vocabulary in this work is balletic modern, executed in soft slippers (Lang also choreographs in the classical ballet vernacular; American Ballet Theatre recently performed her work Her Notes and the women wore pointe shoes). Her tendency is to craft beautiful, flowing movement, but in a few instances, Lang makes an effort to inject humor and an everyman quality into the phrasing by having the dancers shimmy their hands, slump, and stamp off. Lang’s choreography never approaches the down-to-earth quality for which Morris is known, making his work accessible and relaxed in feel. There’s a difference in the way each company’s dancers comport their facial expressions—Morris’ are always serene, even when the emotional temper is high, letting the body speak. Lang’s dancers’ faces absorb and reflect the emotion at hand, which can be distracting. In addition to creating picture-worthy tableaux, Lang may have been observing Morris’ knack for crafting nifty entrances and exits, as when a line of dancers holding hands enters, only to exit downstage after carving a brief arc upstage.
Pergolesi’s use of dissonance is especially powerful in the first movement, signaling unresolvable strife. The movement reflects the mood of the music—primarily somber, at times lushly harmonic. During a peal of “amens” toward the finale, a woman is tossed in the air by the group. The two singers, clad like the dancers, are folded into the movement at times. They mirror the dancers’ upper body movements, or move with the ensemble before breaking apart to sing. Chuchman sang with a lucid soprano and strong magnetism not entirely matched by Costanzo. Yet he displayed a formidably arched back that paralleled a move by one of the dancers.
Bradon McDonald (coincidentally, a fondly-remembered ex-dancer with Mark Morris who embodied Morris’s own fierce dancing style) designed the costumes—sheer tops, skirts, and pants that the dancers change during the piece, transforming the palette from pale earth tones to ethereal sky and ocean blues. This visual allegory for the story at hand subtly supported a mortal’s passage from life to death, and possibly the afterworld. Juxtaposed with Layla and Majnun, they represent two generations of dance interpretations of operatic-scale stories—in Lang’s case, a lucid rendition of early music, and for Morris, a fascinating departure using a spellbinding score.
SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.