George Balanchine famously said, “there are no mothers-in-law in ballet.” Well, fifteen minutes into “Of Love and Rage,” Alexei Ratmansky’s new full-length production for the American Ballet Theater, there was one mother-in-law pacing the stage and two fathers-in-law in a reconciliation dance. By the intermission, the leading lady Callirhoe (Catherine Hurlin, exquisite) had been married twice, impregnated, threatened into a coma (huh?), buried alive, and abducted by pirates. In Act II she was nearly kidnapped twice more. She was saved only by the deus ex machina intrusion of a war that required the services of all the men in the cast. Last week I wrote that the English National Ballet’s production of “Giselle” was needlessly overcomplicated; the plot of “Of Love and Rage” made it feel like a haiku in comparison. But no one employs the music of Aram Khachaturian and aims for subtlety. Every uptempo number in the score could have been used for the finale of any other ballet. “Of Love and Rage,” was so over the top in every direction—plot, score, costumes, sets, steps—that it worked. And there was something thrilling about the fact that it hung together at all. That someone could take that beast of a narrative and wrestle it into something like submission (through dance!) was as much of a triumph as when the ballet’s co-lead Chaereas defeated his umpteen rivals in battle.
“Of Love and Rage” is not the most satisfying of full-lengths—it’s too much of a jumble. It will never dethrone “Swan Lake” or Sleeping Beauty” or “Romeo and Juliet” (though you can be sure it quoted them all). But it is surprisingly coherent for its premise, and Alexei Ratmansky manages to imbue its cockamamie plot (from an ancient Greek text by Chariton) with an impressive amount of heart. Callirhoe, like so many other ballet (and non-ballet) heroines, is a pawn in a world of horny, powerful men. But even as the men bat her about and sell her and fight over her, she reads as an autonomous entity. Partly this was because Hurlin was incredibly skilled at infusing her choreography with personhood: she married her technically challenging steps to emotional intent. But it was also because there was nuanced personhood waiting there to be tapped.
After Chaereas, Callirhoe’s husband, violently accuses her of cheating on him, Callirhoe finds herself helpless and pregnant and sold into slavery in a distant land. (She didn’t betray him. She was the victim of basically the same slutty servant ruse that befell Hero in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” The plots of half a dozen Shakespearean plays were contained within “Of Love and Rage’s” first half.) Still with me? There she must decide whether or not to wed her new owner, who will provide for her and her child if she complies. At this crucial juncture, Ratmanksy gives Callirhoe an arrestingly beautiful, lush solo. Hurlin was magnificent as she despaired about her predicament and steeled herself to move forward in the best path open to her. It was a highlight of the evening, and it was exactly the danced display of interiority that is missing from so many story ballets, including ABT’s last big full-length gamble: “Jane Eyre.” Improbably, Callirhoe never felt like a stock character out of, say, “Le Corsaire,” a dated hodgepodge ballet also with slaves and pirates. Sure, “Of Love and Rage” had plenty of stereotypical auxiliary characters—the lusty handmaid, the demure harem girls, the lecherous King, and seas of angry young men—but Callirhoe, the beating heart of the show, was far more realized than many characters with far more agency. This fact is purely attributable to Ratmansky’s gift for suffusing all his dances with humanity. Even in his plotless ballets, like “Concerto DSCH,” he makes abstract phrases read as miniature character studies.
Ratmansky also has a distinct choreographic voice; his authorship is identifiable in the first moments of any of his works. But within the parameters of his signature style, he is very good at creating little encapsulated worlds. The general Ratmanksy-isms were all present and accounted for in “Of Love and Rage:” the sautés effacés, the extremely curved torsos, the exaggerated plié preparations. But he also created a specific “Of Love and Rage” vocabulary which aided his storytelling. For instance, the protagonists were connected by a double attitude front pirouette that finished with an arabesque relevé. Callirhoe and Chaereas performed it often—together and alone. When Dionysius, Callirhoe’s slaveowner second husband, did the same step in his introductory solo, you knew he would turn out to be a good guy, and he did. (Guest star Daniel Camargo, from the Dutch National Ballet, did a good job in the role too.) At the end of the ballet, although Chaereas had enlisted for his enemy and trounced him in battle, Dionysius unconditionally freed Callirhoe to reunite with him. He even handed over his adopted son to them: he was the nicest, most understanding captor/husband/reformed extortionist in the history of the world.
Similarly, to signify whenever Callirhoe was in love, corps men took her by the limbs and floated her around, which was symbolically helpful. She and Chaereas were lifted thus in their love-at-first sight meeting. And when Callirhoe was deciding whether to forgive Chaereas and return to him at the very end, she was floated up again before she seemed to have rationally made her choice. The heart can’t be helped, it seemed to say. Otherwise, it wasn’t clear that she should return to him. His narrative arc included threatening her, chasing her in a fury, and then channeling yet more rage into a win on the battlefield. Yes, they loved each other passionately. But so did Ike and Tina. Toxic masculinity emerged victorious in ancient Greece.
But Ratmansky was clearly not preoccupied with 1 A.D. ethics in this staging; he was invested in its art. One of the main pleasures of the ballet was its wealth of imagery inspired by Greco-Roman vases and friezes: like the turned in attitude front pose for the Chorus Women that echoed the leads’ more complicated turn step. These women also performed port de bras in which each draped one arm overhead, with the other hand coming up to rest on her prowlike elbow—as if they were luxuriating in woe. They kept doing peel-off canons in these kinds of poses, in profile, which evoked not only reliquary figures but also water ballets. There was a Busby Berkely effect too when the Chorus encircled Callirhoe and arched back, making a blooming flower out of their bodies, to expose her superlative beauty—the beauty that, like for Helen of Troy, was the source of myriad problems. And Hurlin was stunning—with her sculpted legs and feet and her long auburn curls. It was a good hair night in general: Aran Bell, well-cast as Chaereas, had the perfect, feathered blonde coif of an entitled prick in an 80’s movie too.
“Of Love and Rage’s” confusing plot was also clarified some by Jean-Marc Puissant’s gorgeous costumes. They were heavily beaded and lavish, yet uniform within the subsets of character groupings. This was helpful because several dancers had up to five roles over the course of the show. I particularly liked the unusual burgundy gowns and ankylosaur crowns worn by Mithridates’ Court Ladies. At least, I think I have that pegged right. In going through the program the day after the show, I could picture 18 of the 29 characters and retinues involved with absolute surety, but after that I wasn’t crystal clear on which harem or soldier set wore what. And, as if there weren’t enough named characters and their in-laws in “Of Love and Rage,” uncredited soloists kept emerging from the woodwork, as when Michael de la Nuez became the dervish-like leader of the Babylonian Courtiers (his third role of four) with fantastic technical feats.
But though Ratmansky and his production team did a great job at depicting such a convoluted tale, the circus-like aspect of “Of Love and Rage” was kind of the point. Khachaturian’s famous Sabre Dance music—which most people associate with the circus, or Pee Wee Herman—was the backdrop for the final, epic war. Bright fuchsia lights illuminated the smoke-machine haze. It looked like a rave: there may as well have been Satanic clowns and red bicycles á la Pee Wee. But even the music for the slow pas de deux between Callirhoe and Dionysius sounded like it had jack-hammering in it. Khachaturian falls squarely in the “More Cowbell!” camp. Maximalism was the prevailing mode, which made it all rather humorous. At the top of Act II, when Chaereas arrived as a newly captured slave in yet another kingdom in pursuit of Callirhoe, Mithridates (a commanding Jarod Curley, subbing in for Cory Stearns) saw his fancy wedding bracelet and asked him to tell his tale. Ratmansky staged a full recap ballet-within-the-ballet rather than have Chaereas attempt to summarize his journey in pantomime, because how could he? It was hilarious: fresh off intermission we got a thorough redo of Act I, danced by Bell, Hurlin, and the Chorus. I felt like I had just started the second episode of a Netflix series and didn’t hit the “skip recap” button—and I wouldn’t have, I needed it. I’m actually still confused on some points: like when exactly Callirhoe had her baby. She discovered she was pregnant somewhere in the middle of Act I, and by the end of the ballet she had a 6-year old, give or take. There was so much to fit in, childbirth and elapsed time didn’t make the punch list.
All in all, “Of Love and Rage” was ambitious, nutty, and entertaining. Unfortunately, it was also tone deaf. It officially premiered in California on March 5, 2020, running for just a few shows before you-know-what happened. Pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd, even pre-Johnny Depp’s bizarre trial, it would have read much differently. It would have been another well-crafted nonsense romp to go along with Ratmansky’s 2017 confection “Whipped Cream.” But as it was, a ballet which treated a woman’s marriage to her slaver as an act of pluck was a sour fit for the Juneteenth holiday, even though there were several disclaimers about the material in the program. Why on earth didn’t the ABT schedulers at least trade its calendar week with “Don Q” or “Swan Lake?” “Of Love and Rage” nailed it in the dancing and production value arenas; but it stumbled in terms of the current zeitgeist.
This poor timing was not lost on Ratmansky, who acknowledged as much in a recent New York Times interview with Marina Harss. He said: “the creation, especially of a big ballet, somehow represents who you are at a certain time, at a certain place. But it is definitely not me at the moment.” Ratmansky, a Russian who grew up in Ukraine, fled Moscow when the invasion commenced. He has been outspoken about Putin’s tyranny ever since. He might still use the title “Of Love and Rage” if he were to make a ballet today, but it would be a vastly different creation. But it is not his fault that things transpired this way. And there’s something to be said for escapism and the lessons of antiquity in turbulent times. “Of Love and Rage” strikes me as a ballet that might hit you differently on different nights, depending on how much of the newspaper you’d read in the morning.
A striking scrim covered in a massive, decaying bust of Aphrodite dropped and rose at the top of each act. It seemed to signal the audience to remember that we were going way back in time, and to please excuse the modern-day implications of the material. The bust was primarily damaged in the center of the Goddess’s forehead, where there was a gaping hole. It was as if she had been lobotomized, and that, too, seemed right.