“Of Love and Rage,” Alexei Ratmansky’s story ballet based on a romance novel from Greek antiquity, is having a “Sleeping Beauty” moment. The work’s premiere took place in California in March 2020, just before the pandemic shutdown, when much of the world was forced into a stillness that felt, in some ways, like a deep, lingering sleep.
But on Monday it was as if the spell had been lifted when this ballet, ambitious and bold with luscious, full-bodied dancing, had its New York premiere with American Ballet Theater. In doing so, it woke the company up, too. Last week – Ballet Theater’s first performances in residence at the Metropolitan Opera House since 2019 – the dancers were stuck in a musty production of “Don Quixote.” With “Of Love and Rage,” they were transformed with a renewed sense of purpose and promise.
Though the ballet is inspired by “Callirhoe,” an early Greek prose work by Chariton of Aphrodisias (written between the first century BC and the second century AD), this two-act production emits a grandeur that is fresh, sweeping along with airy, big dancing that doesn’t overlook delicacy of position, whether a relaxed wrist in a raised arm or the low lunge of a sprinter just about to take off. There’s a lot of story, perhaps too much – this is not the moment to skip the program’s synopsis – but Ratmansky relies on dancing to carry it along, not phony, overly choreographed acting.
“Of Love and Rage” is rarely static. When there is mime, it develops as a rich extension of the body. When the dancing is soft and elegant, it stretches beyond the tips of the fingers. And when it is fiercely masculine, bodies ignite and burn across the stage like a turbulent, raging fire. With pirates, prisoners and war, this ballet is a continually churning adventure – like a balletic Danger Island or, really, any vintage swashbuckling film – yet underneath it all, “Of Love and Rage” is a meditation on love, loss and forgiveness.
Set mainly to Philip Feeney’s arrangement of music by the composer Aram Khachaturian from “Gayané,” a lively, luminous ballet score, “Of Love and Rage” reflects Ratmansky’s fascination with Greek art in choreographic formations and positions, as well as in its sets and light Grecian-style costumes by Jean-Marc Puissant, who transports the ballet from Syracuse, a formerly Greek city in Southern Italy, to Babylon. Looming in the background is Aphrodite, the goddess of love, whose head occasionally hangs over the back of the stage.
In Ratmansky’s portrait of the ancient world, jealousy leads to an impulsive and devastating lapse in judgment when a young bride is killed by her husband. At least that’s how it first appears. The story, with its parade of characters, can get a little convoluted. (Say yes to reading the book, not just to better follow the plot, but because, violence aside, it’s kind of a screwball romp.)
At its core, it’s the tale of Callirhoe (Catherine Hurlin) – a woman so beautiful that people assume she is the goddess Aphrodite – and Chaereas (Aran Bell). They meet, they marry. But other men love Callirhoe, too; at the start, three Suitors concoct a scheme to break the couple up. It works, and the effects are devastating.
The young lovers have matching gold bracelets; a replica is used to make it seem as if Callirhoe is cheating on Chaereas. A seething Chaereas barges into Callirhoe’s quarters; when she is carried out, her body is lifeless. (In the novel, he kicks her; Ratmansky and his dramaturge, Guillaume Gallienne, have left that detail out.)
Chaereas is horrified, and Callirhoe is buried, though she is not actually dead; she wakes just as a pirate and his men are robbing her tomb. They take her with their loot, and this is where the ballet, suddenly, turns into a great chase: Chaereas, with Polycharmus (Andrii Ishchuk), his loyal friend, set out in pursuit of Callirhoe, who has been sold to Dionysius (Daniel Camargo), a nobleman and widower. This is Callirhoe’s fate, over and over: A man takes one look at her and boom! He’s in love.
After she discovers she is pregnant – by Chaereas – Callirhoe decides to marry Dionysius to keep the baby safe. In the meantime, while searching for Callirhoe, Chaereas and Polycharmus are arrested and taken to the palace of Mithridates (Jarod Curley, a corps de ballet member stepping in for an injured Cory Stearns), who also falls in love with Callirhoe and battles it out with Dionysius. The King of Babylon is called in to rule. But then who show shows up? Chaereas, of course.
If Bell, with his boyish gusto, and Curley, sharp and authoritative, are good, Camargo is great – commanding, heroic, gentle, sad with a fate that is almost worthy of a sequel. But Hurlin as Callirhoe is divine, showing us how she grows from a beautiful girl into a woman realizing her affliction: the kind of beauty that leads men, all men, to want to possess her as a glittering object.
Will the other Callirhoes measure up? (There are multiple casts.) The simple serenity of Hurlin’s face, framed by cascading curls, is riveting, as is the daring amplitude of her expressive, singular dancing. She jumps with the litheness of a cat into Bell’s arms; the breadth of her sculptural, supple upper body, especially in turns in which her arms open wide like blossoms, doesn’t allow for awkward moments or overly embellished theatricality.
She is Callirhoe – beautiful, yes, but also wry, smart and exasperated by the way her life is unraveling before her eyes. Hurlin brings a naturalness to an unnatural role.
After winning a war, Chaereas – the battle scene between him and Dionysius, set to Khachaturian’s invigorating Saber Dance, is a thriller of sound and choreographic texture – finds his way back to her. His remorse is almost harrowing. When they renew their bond, it starts tentatively, but Ratmansky gradually revives moments of their early rapturous choreography when their love was pure and simple. Swirling their wrists, their gleaming bracelets flashing together and then apart, their bond is palpable. And the strangest thing happens to Hurlin’s face and body: Tension melts away and her dewy radiance is restored.
“Of Love and Rage” shows that while envy can infect a relationship, it doesn’t always destroy it. Ratmansky, who was born in Russian and grew up in Kyiv, has been devastated by the war in Ukraine. In an interview with The New York Times, he said that the ballet “is definitely not me at the moment.”
Yet in “Of Love and Rage,” created before the horror there began, Ratmansky seems to be examining today’s world, too. It comes down to a word in the ballet’s title: Rage. Its toxicity, its pervasiveness and wrath, is another epidemic of our time. But in Ratmansky’s adventure, rage isn’t what triumphs. Forgiveness and redemption do. And love.
Of Love and Rage