BWW Review: MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP Delivers a Finessed, Yet Disconnected, Persian Love Story

BWW Review: MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP Delivers a Finessed, Yet Disconnected, Persian Love Story

Don't be fooled by all of the bright colors. The Mark Morris Dance Group's (MMDG) newly commissioned Layla and Majnun, which opened last night at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, lacks the necessary energy to elevate this tragic yet formulaic love story. It's evident from the start that all of the performers on stage are immensely talented, which is why the lack of cohesion throughout the evening becomes frustrating.

A Persian love story that has previously been expressed mostly through poetry, Layla and Manjun is a story of star-crossed lovers akin to Romeo and Juliet. Despite growing up together as childhood sweethearts, Majnun is believed to be possessed by his love for Layla and the two are driven apart. Layla is then married off to another while Majnun becomes a hermit who writes lengthy verses about his immense love for her. Though the two attempt to meet later in life, they die without ever doing so.

MMDG focuses just as much on music during this performance as they do dancing. Allowing their contributing artists of the Silkroad Ensemble to shine, the evening begins with a quartet of two Mugham vocalists (Miraiam Miralamov and Kamila Nablyeva), a kamancheh player (Rauf Islamov) and a tar player (Zaki Valiyev). This medley of Azerbaijani music is a beautiful, if slightly downbeat, way to start the evening. While the programming makes sense, there is no dynamic shift which takes place after players' introduction which propels the forthcoming dancing.

Moving into the performance proper, the Mugam vocals shift to the famous father/daughter musical duo of Fargana Qasimova (singing for Layla) and Alim Qasimov (Majnun). Each vocalist brings such depth to a fairly repetitive score that the audience can feel the pain of the lyrics vibrating through every part of their being. Through the five subsequent acts, however, the choreography never reaches the same emotional peaks the musicians achieve no matter how hard the dancers try.

Act one ("Love and Separation") is the most repetitive of all the acts, unfortunately, which becomes a disappointing way to begin the show. There is something to be said about maintaining a stylized approach to all moves, but about five minutes into the act, it seemed as if every move had already been danced just moments before, without any renewed verve to justify its continual repetition. Subsequent acts (particularly act two, "The Parents' Disapproval" and act five, "The Lovers' Demise") pick up the momentum a little more but never manage to get out of the patterns of repetitiveness established in the first act.

Least repetitive, but most jarring, is who dances the roles of Layla and Majnun (four performers each with the second couple, Nicole Sabela and Domingo Estrada, Jr., being particular high points). Each role shifts to a new MMDG dancer at the beginning of new acts (signified by the passing of a scarf from one lover to the next) without forewarning. Were these shifts to take place with lights up (as it does in the fifth act), they might come across more clearly. Unfortunately, the first four trade-offs occur in the brief blackouts between acts so it becomes confusing when one Layla is suddenly replaced with another.

Most of the evening, there is a disconnect between the music and the movements. Oftentimes, manic dances accompany soothing accompaniment. The effect this renders is a strange one: seeing someone thrash around while a soft and beautiful piece of music plays doesn't seem to fit. Similarly disconnected is the remaining ensemble, who never seem sure if they should remain in-scene and react to the couple's story or serve as passive observers of the action. Until the show's fifth act, when MMDG pulled out some of their most creative moves, the ensemble's very existence didn't seem justified.

There is also a detachment between the set and costumes. Set design (Howard Hodgkin realized by Johan Henckens) is rendered in dark earthy tones lit mostly by candles placed around the stage. The only exception is a large abstract painting along the back wall which looks as though a giant paint brush has been slapped across a canvas. This art installation shifts colors throughout the production but always bursts in vibrant shades.

Such vibrancy is reflected in the simplistic costumes (again by Howard Hodgkin and realized by Maile Okamura) as well. All of the men and women are dressed identically (with the exception of Layla and Majnun each having their signature scarves) with blue and peach adorning them respectively. Patterning among the costumes vary by gender, however. The ladies' costumes appear delicately made, almost appearing as though they were hand-painted. This similar delicacy is lost among the men's costumes. Even from afar, the male dancers seem to be adorned in screen-printed attire. Regardless of if the texturing and production of the costumes is the same, it is strange for opposing effects to be rendered by each when viewed from the same distance.

Mark Morris was in attendance at Thursday evening's performance and was likely pleased with what unfolded. Every move was sharp and executed perfectly by the ensemble. If there was more energy throughout the choreography, the evening would feel like more of a success overall. But, much like the love story unfolding before the audience, the potential for something great is left unfulfilled.

Running Time: Layla and Majnun runs approximately 70 minutes with no intermission.

Layla and Majnun is playing through March 24 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets, call (202) 46704600 or click here.

Photo Credit: Susana Millman

BWW Review: MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP Delivers a Finessed, Yet Disconnected, Persian Love Story

Sam Abney is a Washington, D.C. based arts professional. A native of Arizona, he has happily made D.C. his new home. Sam is a graduate from George Mason University with a degree in Communication and currently works for Arena Stage as a member of their Development team. He is a life-long lover of theater and is excited about sharing his passion with as many people as possible.

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