American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
June 20, 2022
Of Love and Rage
Long ago, in a lifetime far, far away, there used to be a publication called Life Magazine. It was printed on real paper, and arrived at my parents’ house every week, or other week, or month, whatever, by what is now called snail mail. I remember seeing one issue with an outrageous photo-laden story titled “The Fun of Being Pretty.” Even then, as a pre-teen, I thought to myself sarcastically: “Quelle surprise. Tell us something we don’t know. You think maybe being pretty is a punishment?”
Turns out, Life Magazine and I had it wrong. In reality, there’s no joy in being pretty. It’s a royal pain. Just ask Alexei Ratmansky, whose ballet Of Love and Rage addresses that. It seems that in fact being pretty is something of a curse – everyone in the neighborhood expects you to be living a life of privilege, as if you’ve won the beauty lottery, but in fact every guy who thinks he’s a king hits on you, and you have to beat ’em away with a stick. Quelle dommage.
Of Love and Rage had its Covid-delayed New York premiere run this week, and I saw its opening performance. [It’s world premier occurred in March 2020, prior to official recognition of the pandemic, in Southern California.] It was worth the wait.
Except for its awful title, Of Love and Rage is surprisingly good. In fact, it’s very good. Think of the number of full-length ballets there are that weren’t created or revised by Petipa that look fresh and new and not frozen in aspic. There are precious few of them. Granted this one has a leg up on contemporary full-length narratives because it’s got an interesting pedigree, it looks like a commemorative Grecian Urn come to life coupled with an “If it’s Tuesday it Must Be Babylon” Grand Tour of ancient Middle East hot spots, and it was choreographed by one of (if not the) most celebrated of contemporary choreographers.
And one of the qualities that make this ballet as good as it is, aside from its cast, is that you don’t have to scratch your head or see it several times before you figure out what Ratmansky is doing. He may be the most cerebral of contemporary choreographers, but here, what you see is what you get.
And what you get is a choreographic whirlwind with a cast of thousands that should look like a mess, but doesn’t. There may or may not be great choreography here, but it’s at least very good – and very varied and entertaining and presented skillfully.
It’s yet another feather in Ratmansky’s choreographic cap.
“Callirhoe” (or “Chaereas and Callirhoe”), is an ancient Greek novel that exists, according to my detailed research (my usual source: Wikipedia) only in one manuscript from the 13th Century, wasn’t published until the 18th Century, and probably wasn’t popularized until Ratmansky caught wind of it. Original papyri suggest that it may have been written in the mid-1st Century A.D., which would make it the oldest surviving complete ancient prose romance, as well as the oldest historical novel. Evidence also suggests that it was unusually popular in its time, particularly in Egypt where papyri fragments were found in various locations.
The novel was written by a person named Chariton (or “Chariton of Aphrodisias, secretary of the rhetor Athenagoras”} though that may have been a pseudonym, and there’s no indication that this Chariton or whoever he was wrote anything else.
Based liberally on the information contained in the referenced Wikipedia entry since I’m not quite fluent in Ancient Greek, the original story is set in or about 400 B.C., give or take a few centuries, in the Greek city of Syracuse. Callirhoe, the daughter of a hero of the Peloponnesian War named Hermocrates, is the most beautiful girl in the world – or at least in Syracuse. Her beauty is legendary (or mythical, like Aphrodite, who may have been the story’s inspiration). Chaereas, the story’s hero, falls madly in love with her on sight, and the two are promptly married. But Callirhoe had other suitors (maybe the original boys from Syracuse) who are disappointed and conspire to trick Chaereas into believing that Callirhoe has been unfaithful. Chaereas promptly flies into a rage and kicks her so hard she falls dead. She’s subsequently entombed.
But wait. As it turns out, she was only in a coma. She awakens – just in time to surprise pirates who came to raid the tomb. But instead of being scared away, the pirates kidnap Callirhoe to sell as a slave in Miletus. But her new master, Dionysius, falls in love with her. Afraid to disclose that she’s already married to and pregnant by Chaereas, she marries him, and Dionysius comes to believe that the child Callirhoe subsequently gives birth to is his biological son.
Meanwhile, back in Syracuse, Chaereas has heard that Callirhoe is alive. He leaves Syracuse on a mission to search for her, but is himself captured and enslaved. Eventually, both come to the attention of Artaxerxes, the King of Persia, who must decide who is her rightful husband – but he too falls for Callirhoe and wants her for himself. War erupts (it’s not clear exactly how or why), and Chaereas, joining with the Egyptian rebels, successfully storms the Persian stronghold of Tyre and then wins a naval victory against the Persians, after which the original married couple are reunited. Callirhoe writes to Dionysius, telling him to raise her son and send him to Syracuse when he grows up. Chaereas and Callirhoe return in triumph to Syracuse, where Callirhoe offers prayers to Aphrodite, who has guided the events of the narrative.
Much of the background information in this story is historic fact. Hermacratis was indeed a war hero from Syracuse who sired a daughter who married Dionysius I … of Syracuse, not Miletus (an ancient city located in what is now Turkey, south of Troy and roughly 600 miles northwest of Jerusalem). She died following an attack by soldiers, but history shows that Dionysius I was succeeded by a Dionysius II. And although not a real historical figure, Chaereas has somewhat of an analogous historical figure named Chabrias, who fought in the Egyptian War against Persia in the 4th Century B.C. (which may also explain why the novel was so popular in Egypt).
Ratmansky, abetted by dramaturgy by Guillaume Gallienne [a French actor, screenwriter, and film director who previously collaborated on the libretto for the 2011 Paris Opera Ballet production of Caligula, and adapted the Parisian Bolshoi Ballet production of Ratmansky’s Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions)] takes the basic story and adds some things familiar, some things peculiar, and something for everyone. It’s not a comedy, tonight or any other night, but it’s not a tragedy either, though some tragic developments are built-in. Lots of events are unexplained or hidden from view, and in one moment or another it resembles multiple other ballets (or the literary works on which they’re based), including but not limited to Romeo and Juliet, Le Corsaire, La Bayadère, Othello, and Spartacus.
The ballet’s narrative adds a measure of natural elaboration and visual depth to the events identified in what’s known of the original novel, and creates some characters and developments out of whole cloth (rather than papyri). So Callirhoe is first seen in the context of a chorus of women celebrating Aphrodite, and Chaereas is one of a group of young male athletes who happen by (in the process providing additional casting and choreographic opportunities). Their eyes lock across a crowded open air temple, they marry (evidenced by an exchange of gold bracelets – I suppose the concept of wedding rings hadn’t yet reached Greece), and faster than you can say “Shakespeare,” Callirhoe ends up in a crypt.
In the ballet, the conspiracy of the three disappointed Suitors is expanded to add another ingredient: Callirhoe’s father Hermocrates as well as Chaereas’s father (a newly added character named Ariston), who just happen to hate each other and are the Suitors first choice to break up the romance. The plan fails when the fathers reconcile – so the suitors turn to Plan B, and plot to have a new character, Callirhoe’s servant (who resembles Gamzatti’s servant Aya and is as dupe-able as Desdemona’s friend Emilia), unknowingly abet the Suitors by acquiring a duplicate bracelet from one of them (a carelessly discarded handkerchief being unavailable), which is somehow sufficient to convince Chaereas that Callirhoe had been unfaithful (presumably while Chaereas was pumping iron at the local gym). The ballet punts on why and how Callirhoe actually dies (or appears to) as a consequence of Chaereas’s ensuing rage, which I’ll elaborate on below (the program synopsis says she collapses from frustration, complicating matters further).
As in the novel, after Callirhoe awakens in horror to find herself locked in a crypt, pirates appear ex machina (a pirate ship just happens to park adjacent to the crypt), led by a Captain Theron (another casting opportunity), and she’s deposited in Miletus, where Dionysius (here a “nobleman”) promptly forgets his sorrow over his wife’s death, falls madly in love with her, and eventually believes that he’s the father of Callirhoe’s subsequently-born child (with the assistance of another new character, his loyal servant Plangon). Thinking maybe that Chaereas will never be seen again, the relationship between Callirhoe and Dionysius blossoms.
Meanwhile, back in Syracuse, the ballet provides a rationale for Chaereas’s determination that Callirhoe is still alive – he (and his fellow athlete and best friend Polycharmus) returns to further express his regret at causing her death, but instead of finding a den of Wilis, he finds the door to the crypt open and Callirhoe missing. Off he and his friend go, and by an incredible stroke of luck winds up in Miletus, where Plangon promptly has the two arrested (presumably on a charge of potentially upsetting the applecart).
As Act II begins, Chaereas and Polycharmus have been sold into slavery and suddenly appear in the palace of another new character (unless there’s an updated version of the original that the Wikipedia gurus aren’t aware of), Mithridates, who rules some unidentified land and has his own set of Guards and Court Ladies. [There was in fact a Mithridates I, a King of a place called Parthia a hundred or two years before the novel was written. Parthia, as it turns out, is a civilization that at one point triumphed over the Persian army and its power extended throughout the Middle East and beyond. It’s remarkable how much I don’t know that I don’t know.] Mithridates inquires about his newly-acquired slaves’ background, and Chaereas promptly waxes eloquent about Callirhoe. No dummy, Mithridates wants Callirhoe for himself, and thereupon demands that Callirhoe be brought before him. Somehow Callirhoe is quickly found and is brought before Mithridates, with Dionysius in tow. Wouldn’t you know it – Mithridates falls madly in love with her, and conveniently determines that Dionysius isn’t the rightful husband because Callirhoe was previously married. Dionysius and Mithridates fight over her, but the law required that such disputes be settled by the King of Babylon (it not being politically correct to reference the King of Persia, since what was Persia is now Iran) – even though, assuming Mithridates was the King of Parthia, at the time Parthian law would have been dominant, which is probably why Parthia isn’t mentioned in the program’s plot summary. Oy this gets complicated.
Once they appear before the King of Babylon (who’s equipped with his own Queen, Courtiers (male and female), army, and hangers-on). The unnamed King’s unnamed Queen goes bonkers (Callirhoe’s reputation as a home-wrecker apparently having preceded her) knowing that the King will fall madly in love with Callirhoe, and, guess what, the King falls madly in love with Callirhoe and commands that she dance with him. What’s a poor beautiful girl to do? She dances with him – but he’s older and shorter and definitely not her type, so she doesn’t really like it. Faster than you can say “Ptolemy,” the Egyptian army storms the castle (the King apparently not having known that Egypt had declared war on “Babylon”), and the King races to hide in a secret bunker – taking Callirhoe with him. Chaereas, angry and frustrated, joins the Egyptian army, and leads it to victory after the Egyptian general is killed in battle. The casting opportunities are mind-boggling.
When the desert dust settles, Chaereas begs forgiveness for not having accepted Callirhoe’s account of the alleged unfaithfulness (way, way back in the narrative) – though without that there would have been no story. Torn between two lovers (which could serve as the ballet’s theme song when it’s made into a movie), Callirhoe goes with the hunk she originally fell for and forgives Chaereas. Dionysius sorrowfully returns her son to them (he’s the most decent character in the ballet), and Callirhoe, Chaereas, and their son walk off together in the sunset – back to Syracuse.
As I think I’ve demonstrated, Of Love and Rage has all the ingredients to have been a catastrophe of monumental proportions. But it all works – largely because Ratmansky masterfully divides the scenes into discrete (albeit complex) images and equally discrete dances, and creates choreography that never looks repetitious. On the contrary – the choreography, particular for the women in each of the locales visited is, somehow, distinctive between one stopping point and another – even though, considered as a whole, it’s all evocative of the Romanticism of the ladies’ corps dances in La Bayadère. Indeed, with its beautiful, simple set and stunning (but not at all extravagant) costumes for the women that are different for each venue (scenery and costumes by Jean-Marc Puissant, enhanced by Duane Schuler’s lighting), Of Love and Rage has the elegant appearance of Natalia Makarova’s La Bayadère, though, appropriately, far less opulent-looking. The dances for the male dancers are pretty good too, and some bring to mind Ratmansky’s last (to my knowledge) choreographic visit to Greece: Serenade After Plato’s Symposium.
I would have preferred that the opening male athletic entourage not been so obviously testosterone-laden, but this being Greece, that’s not an unreasonable choice – and it enables Ratmansky to create a male lead character consistent with the original story’s intent and with comparable period representations (e.g., Spartacus) – immensely augmented by the music composed by Aram Khachaturian (from his “Gayaneh”), who also composed the music for Spartacus. And just as in Spartacus, the hero here may be a stereotypically muscled male, but the duets that Ratmansky creates for Callirhoe and Chaereas are athletic, but also sensitive – and some of the imagery (including overhead lifts and airborne encounters) is flat-out gorgeous to watch. And Ratmansky sets up a counterpoint to the expressive and highly physical interaction between Callirhoe and Chaereas in the far more restrained and tender pas de deux between Callirhoe and Dionysius, as well as in the depiction of their overall relationship.
There are several points at which the piece either fails to follow up on visual themes or nearly becomes chaotic. When the ballet begins, the scene presented is a bare Greek temple-like area, and a group of women assembled audience-right appear to be collectively lamenting something. There is no question that these women are intended to be representative of a Greek Chorus, so common a tool in Greek plays that it’s almost become a cliché. But, unless I missed something (a distinct possibility, since I’ve only seen the production once), this reference isn’t carried through the ballet – not even in the ballet’s concluding image, where at the least it would have tied that loose thread together. This is distinct from Ratmansky’s effort, largely successful, to present the story in a manner in which it might have been presented in a then contemporary theater – often looking flat and intentionally one-dimensional. And notwithstanding its overall cohesiveness, in the ballet’s penultimate scene at the court of the King of Babylon, once the Egyptian army appears things move so quickly that but for the program synopsis I’d have had no idea what was happening. As an emotional consequence of a physical stage event, it evoked the chaos of the fall of the temple in La Bayadère.
By far the greatest disappointment, however, is that one event in particular is unexplained or hidden from view. Here I don’t know whether the responsibility is ABT’s or Ratmansky’s, though for these purposes it doesn’t matter. This is the nature and consequence of that Plan B by the three disappointed Suitors. It’s not at all clear how or why her servant’s acceptance of a bracelet from one of the Suitors (I think it was Eric Tamm, who has rejoined ABT) would be sufficient to convince Chaereas of Callirhoe’s unfaithfulness – unless the servant (played by Luciana Paris) was told to tell Chaereas that she obtained it from Tamm (or whoever it was), and that he got it from Callirhoe – an event that didn’t happen. And even if it did, Chaereas would have seen the wedding bracelet still on Callirhoe’s wrist, shooting that theory.
Far more significant to me, however, is that the result of Chaereas’s rage is neither presented to the audience nor referenced in the synopsis. He doesn’t “kick” her so hard that she appears to be dead, as in the original. Rather, the audience sees Chaereas in a blind rage, sees him race into their town condo, and then sees him emerge carrying Callirhoe’s lifeless body. That’s just intellectually (as well as narratively) dishonest. If she died of frustration because Chaereas wouldn’t believe her, why not show it? And if she died for the reasons indicated in the original story, why not show that – if for no other reason than to show its beastliness and forseeable consequences? I’m tempted to elaborate on this further, but it doesn’t belong in this review. I’ll save my soapbox for another time.
Nevertheless, in the overall scheme of things, these perceived concerns do not interfere with the ballet’s indisputable excellence.
The cast could not have delivered a finer performance. Although the character Chaereas is a stereotype (and “Albrechtian” in his show of remorse), Aran Bell pumps it full of energy, and dominates the stage – as he is here required to do. Catherine Hurlin’s Callirhoe is also a stereotype, but she plays the role so well that she presents as a character far more complex than it is. Although she could have played the role as a poor innocent Aphrodite wannabe or resorted to caricature (the trials and tribulations of a beautiful damsel in distress; or being beautiful is such a pain), her characterization went far beyond that. Her Callirhoe is sympathetic and believable, which for this story is no small accomplishment. And as I’ve written previously, when Hurlin and Bell dance together, the result is magical.
But to me the most important character portrayal in the ballet is of Dionysius, and Daniel Camargo, a guest artist with ABT this season, mined the character’s emotional depths in a surprisingly (at least to me, since I’m not familiar with his work – although some time ago I saw him partner Sarah Lane in the Diana and Acteon pas de deux at a YAGP Gala) complete and nuanced portrayal. Similarly, Jared Curley’s Mithridates (he subbed for the injured Cory Stearns), though less complex a character than Dionysius, proved as commanding, and as conniving (under the surface), as he needed to be. Roman Zhurbin’s King of Babylon was far less developed than the others; more like a powerful nonentity – but that’s the way this character is supposed to be played. After all, this story was, effectively, Egyptian/Greek PR, and the King of Babylon (Persia) lost the war. Accordingly, here he’s viewed less as a powerful king than a royal loser.
There is an army of other characters in this production, and I can’t address all of them (though I can say that there were no clinkers in the bunch; every member of the cast executed his or her role admirably. But I must highlight one: the character of Queen of Babylon is part courtesan and part Cassandra, who’s risen to the top of the Babylonian heap, knows that she’s at risk of losing that position, and does everything she can to prevent the inevitable from happening – only to have her efforts ignored by her husband and ultimately undone by the Egyptian War. As she’s shown in every outing where characterization or response to events is or can be appropriate, Williams somehow absorbs its essential qualities like a sponge, and wrings it out to the audience with uncanny accuracy.
Of Love and Rage is not flawless, but it’s a beautifully conceived and executed production, and if one doesn’t get bogged down in nitpicky observations as I have here, it’s a pleasure to watch. Since, effectively, this is its premiere season, it’s likely to return to ABT’s repertory soon. If and when it does, it should be seen – even with a title that’s as unnecessarily pompous and silly-sounding as Of Love and Rage. This isn’t “War and Peace.” Then again, the original title probably wouldn’t sound sufficiently exciting or sell tickets, and since “Ode to a Grecian Urn” is already taken. I suppose Of Love and Rage will have to do. It’s all Greek to me anyway. Chacon à son goût.