Catherine Hurlin as Callirhoe in “Of Love and Rage” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Gene Schiavone

Of Love & Rage

Alexei Ratmansky's new work for American Ballet Theatre

Performance
American Ballet Theatre: “Of Love and Rage” by Alexei Ratmansky
Place
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, California, March 5-8, 2020
Words
Victoria Looseleaf

Let’s just call American Ballet Theatre’s world premiere, “Of Love and Rage,” choreographed by the singular Alexei Ratmansky, a terpsichorean orgy of outsized proportions, an all-embracing bacchanalia, if you will.

Indeed, this is ballet at its most sumptuous. Set to the music of Aram Khachaturian (known for his “Spartacus” score, which includes the exquisite love theme) and performed live by the Pacific Symphony under the exacting baton of ABT music director Ormsby Wilkins, the two-plus hour work is a feast on all levels, not least for a huge and dazzling cast.

Led on opening night by upcoming stars, soloists Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell, who danced the roles of Callirhoe and Chaereas, respectively, there were pleasures galore to be found in all the performers. Adapted from a novel, Callirhoe, with dramaturgy by Guillaume Gallienne, this is basically a 2,000-year old story that journeys across the Hellenic realm from Syracuse (Sicily) to the outskirts of Athens and Babylonia. The work, of course, deals with many of the usual balletic staples: Our heroine, considered the most beautiful girl in the world (quel misery), falls in love with Chaereas (a pretty good looker himself), after which they marry, quarrel and then she dies, lying in state in a tomb. 

Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell in “Of Love and Rage” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Gene Schiavone

But wait: There’s more! Callirhoe, who isn’t actually dead, is, in short order, kidnapped by pirates, sold into servitude and then remarries. As Ratmansky, ABT’s resident choreographer, noted in the press release, the ballet “is not a fairytale” [and] although it was written thousands of years ago, with the complexity of [the leads’] relationship at its core and the tough choices they face, it feels very modern and relevant.”

Okay, cool. And with the quintessential love/redemption theme on tap, it’s the non-stop dancing that rules. The many dozens of finely-tuned performers are also dressed to the nines (well, some Vegas-y costumes accentuated with glitter and sequins might score a high six), by award-winning Jean-Marc Puissant, who also created the formidable scenery: huge columns, rugged rocks and stippled buildings, and a rollicking pirate ship that Johnny Depp might have felt at home captaining. Taken in total, these elements elevate the ballet to instant classic, if somewhat kitschy, status.

Ratmansky, who’s been described by the New York Times as “the most gifted choreographer in classical ballet today”—and has made 16 new works for ABT to date—does not stint on steps; his affiliation with the Orange County arts institution dating back to “Firebird” (2012), “Sleeping Beauty” (2015) and “Whipped Cream,” seen in 2017. Culling inspiration from the Greek aesthetic of beauty and harmony, the 51-year old makes superb use of classical ballet’s vernacular with his solos, duets and corps work, including having a dozen women serve as a kind of movement chorus and who are also able to embody sadness, exultation and other emotions.

Catherine Hurlin (center) and dancers of ABT in “Of Love and Rage” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Gene Schiavone

From huge leaps and exhilarating turns to poses reminiscent of Nijinsky’s “Afternoon of a Faun”—replete with raised flat hands—and even incorporating a folkdance-like vocabulary, the performers go for broke, making for a gasp-worthy production. Added treats were James Whiteside’s Dionysius (Callirhoe’s second husband), who soared in his solos and stunned in his duets, not to mention his flagrant raging at his rival Mithridates (an exemplary Cory Stearns).

Of course, the marriage of Khachaturian’s music to Ratmansky’s creation—one made in balletic heaven—also upped the cohesion factor. With composer Philip Feeney having constructed a score from music Khachaturian composed in the late 1930s, it worked magnificently. As part of this melodious tapestry, Feeney managed, as well, to incorporate the hugely popular, highly rhythmic Sabre Dance, first heard in Khachaturian’s other ballet, the four-act “Gayane,” written in 1943.

Used here to illuminate the ballet’s frenzied second act battle scene, the music punctuated the Chorus Men’s eye-popping moves, with Sung Woo Han making his mark in a rousing solo. There were also moments recalling Bernard Herrmann’s string-obsessed scores written for several Hitchcock films, as well as his elegiac music accompanying the flick, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. (Hmm, that might make an intriguing ballet…) Particularly lovely, too, was the “Gayane Adagio,” recognizable from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Of Love and Rage
American Ballet Theatre perform “Of Love and Rage” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Gene Schiavone

And though it was a wee bit hard to keep track of all of the dancerly comings and goings (at one point a pregnant Callirhoe pantomimed morning sickness), there were numerous standouts in the huge cast that was enhanced by Duane Schuler’s top-notch lighting: Roman Zhurbin doubled as the King of Babylon and Callirhoe’s father; Katherine Williams proved his lovely Queen; a divine Luciana Paris danced the part of our heroine’s maid; and Courtney Shealy was convincingly wily as the conspirator Plangon.

And talk about lifts: Bell gobsmacked with his one-arm Hurlin hoistings, as forgiveness and renewed ardor were the order of the day. That the couple also radiated naivety was a key to their coupling, with the entire ballet packing a solid a punch. (Rotating principals danced at other performances.)

Finally, it can’t be stressed enough how live music enhances a performance. Yes, it’s cost prohibitive, but when it’s made available, everyone benefits. Whether sounding angelic (Mindy Ball’s harp playing was intoxicating) or resonating with a full complement of brass, winds and even a piano, the accompaniment was, no pun intended, pitch perfect.

Ratmansky’s “Of Love and Rage” might also be deemed perfect, storm-wise, that is: Abetted by thrilling music, a dizzying array of costumes and sets and electrifying dancing—with a master choreographer putting it all together—this love conquers all story makes the world seem a brighter and more jubilant place.

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