Fusing artistic genres is a challenging task, even more so when you attempt to cross cultures, languages and historical time periods. Layla and Majnun, a flagship event at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, is an artistic fusion of the highest order: an ancient Middle Eastern love story told through the music of an Azerbaijani composer played by an East-West chamber group and sung by traditional mugham vocalists, all of which is brought to choreographic life by 15 American dancers.

It’s an ambitious project that exceeds all expectations. Not only does the work truthfully represent the disciplines from which it takes its form, but it also offers something more than the sum of its parts. The result is wonderfully original and disarmingly beautiful.

Layla and Majnun, Melbourne Festival Layla and Majnun. Photo © Mat Hayward

The dance-opera tells the ancient story of ill-fated childhood lovers, Layla and Majnun, who are denied a life together. Layla is married off; Majnun becomes a hermit; they are reunited only in death. It is an ancient fable that has permeated all art forms since the fifth century and remains widely celebrated throughout the Middle East, north Africa and western...