Across the open and darkened stage the lights of small lamps flicker. At the back of the stage stretches an eight-foot-wide platform, and from that platform run two more ‘runways’ at a lower level. The stepped platforms fashion a squared-off C-shape pushed against the outer edges of the stage. In the center of the C is a shorter platform, with just enough room for two people to sit crosslegged, facing the audience, and sing.

Overlooking it all from the farthest back of the stage is the projection of an abstract painting. A wide brushstroke of deep coral rises from the lower left corner of the image and like a wave surges across the screen and up, curving over and embracing a bluish green brushstroke. Here and there the green merges into the red in fine lines.

This is the stage at Zellerbach Hall, where the Silk Road Ensemble and the Mark Morris Dance Group world premiered their collaboration, Layla and Majnun, presented by Cal performances.

Layla and Majnun is a complex multicultural work that has its roots in a set of poems that came out of the oral tradition of pre-Islamic Bedouin poetry. Originally in Classical Arabic, the poems found their way into various diwan (collections). It’s uncertain when the poems were sung, but the date is usually placed in A.D. 7th century. During the next 500 years the poems would travel throughout the Middle East and into the Asian subcontinent, evolving to fit the local culture’s desire for poetic stories about impossible love. There are many different versions of the story of Layla and Qays ibn al-Mulawwah, or Majnun.

One of the most developed rewritings of the Layla poems is that of the 12th-century Persian poet Nezami. Nezami was a Sufi, and his 4,000-plus verses include a mystical reading. Layla and Majnun are not simply young lovers foiled by their parents; the Persian poet suggests Layla is the Universal Beloved: “In every heart there is an inclination to love her.” Majnun is also an epithet meaning crazy: he is the lover driven mad by desire and the unachievable qualities of human love.

Some 800 years later, in 1908, a 23-year-old Azerbaijani composer, Uzeyir Hajibeyli, premiered his three-and-a-half-hour-long opera version of Nezami’s story. It is from Hajibeyli’s opera, which was a blend of the Western symphonic tradition and the Azerbaijani musical genre mugham, that the current collaboration derives.

The celebrated mugham artist Alim Qasimov, who has been central to the beloved opera’s continued performance in Azerbaijan, brought the opera and the idea of refashioning it to the Silk Road Ensemble. Qasimov selected five scenes from the opera, which featured solo and duet parts for Layla and Majnun, and these were arranged by violinist-composers Johnny Gandelman and Colin Jacobsen into a chamber opera that was premiered by the Ensemble in 2009. 

Enter the dancers! YoYo Ma, the Ensemble’s founder, approached Mark Morris to set choreography to the music. After some negotiation the arrangers adapted the music to the medium of dance, and the project moved forward.

In a short prelude to the piece, two mugham singers, flanked by kamancheh and tar instrumentalists, set the musical tenor and emotional landscape of the music in a medley of Azerbaijani music. The stringed instruments gave a plangent quality to the singing.

Layla and Manjun was set in motion by the entrance of the musicians. The ten instrumentalists, garbed in sand-colored tunics with large ochre splotches, entered upstage and fanned out from the center so that they were sheltered between the two arms of the raised platforms. Except for percussion and the flute-like shakuhachi, all the instruments were stringed, and their origins spanned the globe from violin to Chinese pipa.

The Qasimovs entered next, taking their place seated on the central platform. They were flanked by Rauf Islamov, kamancheh, and Zaki Valiyev, tar. Matching the great wave of colors in Howard Hodgkins’ expressive painting projected upstage, Alim was dressed in a greenish blue tunic, and Fargana was resplendent in head-to-toe deep coral. This color pattern was repeated in the dancers, the women in white-streaked coral, flared floor-length dresses and the men in blue tunics and white pants.

The staging required that the dancers move through and around the musicians, and this intertwining gave the piece a coherent visual identity and a flowing energy. Four sets of couples danced the roles of Layla and Majnun, a different couple for each of the first four scenes and all four couples in the final scene, “The Lovers’ Demise”. Stacy Martorana made an innocent and fresh Layla in “Love and Separation”, Domingo Estrada a circumspect Majnun in “The Parents’ Disapproval”, and Lesley Garrison a fiery Layla in “Layla’s Unwanted Wedding”. All of the company’s dancers were brilliant, and beyond criticism.

Morris’ choreography combined various traditional movements from the region elaborated with unmistakable Morris ornamentation. This was not always the happiest of combinations. Morris’ choreography is genius when couched in the playful and the lightly satiric, and the choreography did not always serve the darker moments of unresolved love. Even so, the ensemble movements were filled with energetic whirling, which echoed the enhanced emotional state that infuses the body in love, and a languorous and dynamic presence when still.

Moreover, the dancers showed how deeply connected they were not only to the music but also to each other. Mugham singing is improvisational and the singers can shorten or lengthen their solos as they feel is necessary. Every performance is different. This puts increased pressure on the dancers to be aware of shifts in the music and to communicate with each other more or less simultaneously. The company’s integrity to the performance, to the singers, to the music was spot on.