This article was written in early 2020 as Of Love and Rage was being created, prior to its World Premiere at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California on March 5, 2020.
In summer 2018, ABT Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky took a vacation in Sicily, specifically in the city of Siracusa. That city, as the art historian Kenneth Clark once remarked, is a true layer cake of history, with a vast Greek theatre, quarries, and other ancient remains. Its baroque cathedral contains the visible pillars of a Greek temple; its wide sea views and their bright light float in the memory of anyone who has been there. Sparking his imagination, Siracusa gave Ratmansky a new engagement with the ancient world. The result is his new two-act ballet, Of Love and Rage, which begins and ends in Siracusa.
This creation is a highly original exercise in recycling. It brings to the stage a Greek prose epic, Callirhoe, that has been called the oldest surviving novel. It was written, probably in the first century A.D., by Chariton. Ratmansky is setting it to an arrangement of appealing, vivid music from Gayaneh, the Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian’s late-1930s full-length ballet score. No, there’s no logic in connecting that Ancient Greek novel to this particular music, but Ratmansky has the lateral thinking to harness both to his new ballet.
“This ballet isn’t archaeology,” Ratmansky said. “It’s for the stage, and everything is shaped by the Khachaturian music, which has an ancient feel. I always used to skip the parts of museums to do with the ancient world. Stupid of me! Then in 2012, when I was in Copenhagen, I spent time in the Glyptotek, a fabulous museum, and started to study its Greek art. This opened up so much.”
Ratmansky and his designer, Jean-Marc Puissant, are working together for the first time. Both men are highly civilized; both apply softly melodious voices and European accents to a fluent command of English. In December 2019, they presented preliminary sketches of their project at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Having seen the Met Museum event, I spent time with each man in New York while they were rehearsing their creation. For each, Of Love and Rage offered multiple encounters with classicism. Both spoke of challenges as if they craved them.
Puissant is himself a former dancer. He has designed sets and costumes for ballet, opera, and theatre, but this is the first full-length ballet he has designed for a large company. “Until now, the ballets I’ve designed have always been plotless one-act ones,” he said. “So, for this narrative, I’m drawing on different experience. I look at the score, I look at the text.”
Puissant demonstrates both experience and awe as he discusses Ratmansky’s command of ballet’s classical tradition. “With any other choreographer, it would have been a very different process. To be in the presence of someone who has such a deep understanding of the medium—that is shocking, in a way. Alexei brings this direct access with Marius Petipa, I feel. He shows the humanity of what classicism was, has been, can be, is.”
What is the appeal of Callirhoe to Ratmansky? “Love,” he replies. (He adds with a twinkle, “which usually works well.”) “A great love—and adventures. It’s a first love, which then returns as mature emotion, cemented by the experience of horrible misfortunes.”
What about rage? The heroine, Callirhoe, is still newly wed to her first love, Chaereas, when, incensed by misplaced jealousy, he calamitously overreacts. She falls, lifeless. (She’s assumed dead by all; she revives only in time to be abducted by grave-robbers.)
“But what I love about this story,” Ratmansky observes, “is that she forgives him. We all make mistakes, and big mistakes—but their love is still there. He realizes his mistake right away, but the consequences are terrible for both of them.”
Both Ratmansky and Puissant have researched the world of their ballet with the help of curators at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and elsewhere. Puissant: “For me, the first question is what angle to take on the ancient world.”
“The story has its own requirements: it needs a door, so that a woman can hide behind it. I couldn’t go completely abstract on it. All this brought me into conversation with Kim Benzel, the curator of the Near East collection at the Met Museum,” says Puissant. “I had vast areas to research, but really my questions for Kim were practical. What is the color of the wall? Are the doors big? What do we see through the doors?
“Yet Kim talked to me about something larger: fragmentation. There are so many ways in which the cultural objects we know from the ancient world have been broken up and put together again. Now I saw how I could tell the story. You see the characters in a contemporary setting, but through the lens of time—the time between theirs and ours.”
The action of Callirhoe and this ballet moves swiftly across the Mediterranean, into Asia, and back again. Three rulers of different Asian nations all fall for the heroine: Dionysius of Miletus (in Asia Minor, Turkey), Mithridates of Caria, and Artaxerxes of Babylon.
“We start in Siracusa with a more Greek look,” Puissant explains. “But once the story goes to Miletus and the court of Dionysius, the costumes become much more early-20th century, more Ottoman. Then, with Mithridates, the style is much more Cossack, more Armenian—that’s artistic license, totally, but it comes from the music. When we reach Babylon, it’s ‘High Fashion Meets Exact Babylonian Research’!”
Ratmansky, artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre since 2009, is 53. His lead couple, Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell, are in their early twenties. “I feel it’s part of my duties to promote and develop young dancers within the Company. I take ideas from all the casts, not just the first one. When I’m in doubt, and the more time I have, I like to watch four casts rehearsing the material. Then I’ll understand better what works and what doesn’t.”
Counting the classics he has staged (and to which he has contributed choreography), this is his 21st full-length ballet. “Working on old ballets, making new ballets to new music, adapting old stories to other music—for me, it’s all part of the same thing, which is exploring ballet,” Ratmansky conveys. “I can say that working on the ballets from the 19th century has enriched my movement vocabulary and given me marvelous examples of structure. You don’t need to invent the bicycle every time.”
How does Of Love and Rage end? Ratmansky was still considering options: “Callirhoe and Chaereas definitely need a quiet moment alone together, perhaps like a question mark. On the other hand, I think a full-length ballet may need something celebratory. We’ll see.”
No living artist in dance has been doing more than Ratmansky to realign our ideas of classicism past and present; and no dance figure has made a wider or closer study of the Greco-Roman world. Among the many tasks he undertook during the pandemic lockdowns of 2020-2022 was to start a new Instagram account, named @grecoromansky. On this, he has posted a stream of the photographs he has taken over the past 10 years in museums all over the world: photographs of Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman works of art; images of grace and violence, of death and sex and sport, of men and women, of demons, gods, maenads, monsters, satyrs, sirens, and other mythical beings, of geometrical panels and corner decorations. How glorious to find that this internationally acclaimed choreographer continues to research the ancient world, and to share his discoveries with his audience.
Alastair Macaulay has served as Chief Theatre Critic of the Financial Times (1994–2007) and Chief Dance Critic of The New York Times (2007–2018).