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Barbara Newman sees works by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Mark Morris

Posted on January 8, 2019


What do you take away when you leave a dance performance? Does the movement stay with you, or the music, or designs or overall effect? I’m asking because I’m beginning to wonder what the dance public prefers.

A friend who teaches a course entitled Performance: Design and Practice at Central Saint Martins recently told me that “scenography across Europe in the last two decades has moved to the idea of design as authorship.” Maybe choreography has embraced that concept too.

At Sadler’s Wells, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Icon, our introduction to the Götesborgs Operans Danskompani in its UK debut, treated the willing dancers like children in a sandbox. Antony Gormley’s much heralded set design carpeted half the stage with malleable red clay, which the dancers rolled into tubular crowns, molded into head-enveloping masks, threw at each other, and pounded into giant blocks to construct a statue of a seated human.

Before they turned most of their attention to this earnest handiwork, they spoke – “The story we tell about what happened can change what has happened” – and danced in ecstatic trios, wind-propelled solos, and passages of fluid backbends and shoulder flips, sinuous as fish. One man broke his limbs into awkward shapes and angles that could barely support him, and for a moment you could imagine a beggar or a cripple, almost helpless but determinedly struggling.

Briefly dead or discarded, the dancers buried in clay by their companions stood up and brushed themselves off, so even death became inconsequential. None of the dancing made a visual impact as clearly as their clay play, and nothing explained their activity as well as their words. “These are not virtual realities,” they declared, “they are the realities of the future.”

Pictured: Götesborgs Operans Danskompani in Icon. Photographs by Mats Backer.

Mark Morris’ choreography doesn’t need explanation. Built on the mutually supportive foundations of music and architecture, the movement reveals his intent every time. His Layla and Majnun, which came to Sadler’s Wells in November, emerged in 2016 from his collaboration with the internationally renowned artist Howard Hodgkin and Yo Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, a collection of musicians and singers from those countries bordering the silkroad.

The legend of the doomed lovers Layla and Majnun informs numerous folktales from the Middle and Near East, and provided the basis for the first music formally composed in Azerbaijan, an opera created in 1908. Inspired by its roots, Morris has honoured them in his 70-minute piece by giving them unusual prominence. He has arranged the musicians in a semi-circle within multi-level platforms enclosing the stage on three sides; distinguished Azerbaijani singers, Alim Qasimov and his daughter at Sadler’s Wells, sit together on a cushioned platform dead centre. Video screens in the auditorium present a précis of their words, and 16 dancers weave through and around the musicians like an embroidered ribbon.

Different couples in turn acquire the title roles, exploring each chapter of the narrative, from separation to sorrow to the lovers’ reuniting death, through flowing, lyrical movement and mimetic gesture. As ever, Morris keeps the stage beautifully balanced, no matter where he places the dancers. Often, and aptly, he divides them by gender to enhance the characters’ enforced separation, and one gorgeous sequence unspools outward in two directions – left to right and upstage to downstage – travelling body to body to reach the distant protagonists.

It’s easy to see why Byron described the tale as the “Romeo and Juliet of the East,” but not so easy to concentrate on this realisation of it with so many other things vying for your attention. The characters’ emotional intensity weakens as the wide spacing stretches it, and the stepped levels, video text, and stationary musicians force your eyes through a sort of obstacle course. Though Morris’ sensitive response to music lies at the heart of his creativity, this time it slightly derails his effort. Fascinating in its current form, Layla and Manjun deserves a stage to itself, where we could see and appreciate it fully.

Pictured: Mark Morris Dance Group and Silkroad Ensemble in Layla and Majnun. Photographs by Susana Millman.



Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at

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