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Choreographer Mark Morris rehearses dancers for the world premiere of “Layla and Majnun,” an ancient Persian love story, at Cal Performances, UC Berkeley, Sept. 30-Oct. 2. (Amber Star photo)

BERKELEY, Calif. — Cal Performances at UC Berkeley presents the world premiere of “Layla and Majnun,” a major new evening-length work by choreographer Mark Morris, in Zellerbach Hall Sept. 30-Oct. 2. The music will be performed by the Silk Road Ensemble with Azerbaijan’s preeminent mugham vocalists Alim Qasimov, named “one of the greatest singers alive” by the New York Times, and his daughter Fargana Qasimova.

“Layla and Majnun” is a classic story of forbidden love most notably expressed by the great Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. Cal Performances is proud to serve as the lead commissioner for the production, and as Mark Morris Dance Group’s longtime West Coast home, marks the company’s 13th world premiere presentation at Cal Performances.

“Layla and Majnun” is a classic Arabian love story, widely adapted throughout the Middle East in Muslim, Sufi, Hindu, and secular contexts, and most closely associated with the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. Layla and Qays (called Majnun, which means “possessed”), are in love from childhood but are not permitted to unite, says a press release. Layla is married off to another, and Majnun becomes a hermit, devoting himself to writing verses about his profound love of Layla. Although the lovers attempt to meet, they die without ever realizing a relationship.

In 1908, Layla and Majnun became the subject of the first Middle Eastern opera, written by Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli (1885–1948.) Hajibeyli combined symphonic and choral sections with mugham, a traditional central Asian style of improvised singing, and the work has since become a cornerstone of Azerbaijani culture.

Morris’ new full-length work features 16 dancers in a chamber version of Hajibeyli’s opera, arranged by Alim Qasimov, Johnny Gandelsman, and Colin Jacobson for the Silk Road Ensemble in 2008. The new production brings together leading artists in contemporary and traditional concert music, visual art, and dance in this major retelling of the Layla and Majnun story. Qasimov, named a ‘Living National Treasure of Azerbaijan’ for his preservation of the art of mugham vocal tradition, performs with his daughter and protégée, Fargana Qasimova, joined by musicians of the acclaimed Silk Road Ensemble on traditional Asian instruments (kamancheh, tar, shakuhachi, pipa), Western strings (violins, viola, cello, contrabass), and percussion. British painter Howard Hodgkin, also a collector of antique Mughal miniature paintings, will design the production. Musicians and dancers will share the stage in front of a breathtaking backdrop, Hodgkin’s painting Love and Death.

A selection of related activities enhances the performances of “Layla and Majnun,” including a public interview with Morris (Sept. 26), a community dance class with Mark Morris Dance Group members (Sept. 30), and an in-depth examination of the story of Layla and Majnun, including a reenactment by Golden Thread Productions, and artist and roundtable discussions (Oct. 1). In collaboration with the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Morris will host a specially curated series of films from Iran and the former Soviet Union designed to echo the theme of unrequited love found in the centuries-old tale (Sept. 24 – Oct. 1).

Tickets for “Layla and Majnun” are available through the Ticket Office at Zellerbach Hall, at (510) 642-9988, at calperformances.org, and at the door.

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