“Layla and Majnun,” a classic Azerbaijani tale of young lovers and meddling parents, has been compared to “Romeo and Juliet.” In Mark Morris Dance Group’s production, which opened at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Thursday, the story is given lusciously sensuous form, with gentle, insistent music from the Silkroad Ensemble and two celebrated Azerbaijani singers, as well as the physical charge of Morris’s superb dancers.
This is a dance-opera of profound grace and yearning, but one point of interest is that the lovers hardly ever touch. Carnal desire may underlie their actions, but Morris seems more interested in the spiritual power of love to wound but also to console. His “Layla and Majnun” presents us with shifting images of unrequited desire alongside peaceable acceptance.
Morris’s hour-long work is unlike any piece he’s made before, or like any dance performance in recent memory, for that matter. Musicians sit around the stage, and the father-daughter vocalists Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova preside like royalty at the center. The dancers move around them, either in front or behind, on a raised platform, or they bound up and down risers along the sides. Sometimes they run freely among the string players. It takes consummate grace to manage such activity, but this has never been an issue for Morris, a choreographer with an exceptionally smooth and fluid style.
The pair’s togetherness problem is established at the start and, since we all know how such forbidden-love stories go, you can guess what’s ahead. Yet this is not a story of exile or separation. It offers a view of how even the most difficult of personal circumstances can sit within the human community, part of the never-ending tide of life that flows on and carries even the downhearted along with it. How does Morris achieve this? First, there is his exquisite use of the mesmerizing music. It was originally a three-hour opera by the 23-year-old Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli, which the Silkroad Ensemble arranged into an hour. The result is rich and velvet-toned, with slow and quickening pulses, and plaintive, questioning vocals. One recurring theme has the waltzy, humming quality and poignancy of an Aaron Copland air.
There’s both harmony and drama in the whole stage picture. Candlelit lanterns dot the stage. Artist Howard Hodgkin designed the vivid backdrop — brushstrokes of red and green — and the costumes, with the women in coral gowns and the men in blue tunics over white trousers. The work is in five acts, from “Love and Separation” to “The Parents’ Disapproval” and “Layla’s Unwanted Wedding,” and beyond. A different pair of dancers portrays the lovers in each act, wearing long scarves so we can pick them out of the ensemble. After their section, they melt seamlessly back into the group, and a new leading pair emerges. In this way, Layla and Majnun are universals: the human spirit on its eternal quest for love, seeking a higher power, perhaps, or simply a soul mate.
Meanwhile, the ensemble observes them, even seems to gossip a little. Yet the lovers mostly have no consciousness of being observed, or rather, they accept it. Weaving in and out of the community is merely a fact of life.
As is typical for Morris, he’s invented a new movement language for this piece, combining the high carriage and taut legs of ballet, modern dance’s freedom in the torso and sense of weight, and hints of Middle Eastern dance, derived from centuries-old paintings and Sufi traditions, such as the whirling dervishes’ dance. The musicality is superb, as we’ve come to expect from Morris dancers; one could believe they initiate the strings by the sweep of their arms.
Through such a fine alignment of gesture and focus, and the sensitive phrasing of the steps with the music, we can sense the emotions of this narrative, which is sung in Azerbaijani, with a few, brief surtitles. Though this is a story of crazed love — a program note explains that “majnun” means “possessed” — the chief impression is clarity, and dignity. The dancing throughout is precise and spirited, with a crisp sharpness of outline.
What remains of Laylan and Majnun once their journey reaches its end? Nothing, and much. A final tableau of smoke, shadows and quiet peacefulness leaves us with a great deal to contemplate.