March Digest: Rethinking “Of Love & Rage”

1-ABI Of Love and Rage-Chorus Ladies, Act I OGRS9457@Gene Schiavone
Praying to the gods in Act 1, “Of Love and Rage,” American Ballet Theatre. Photo by Gene Schiavone

My New Year’s resolution for this blog was to post a compilation review every month, but coronavirus has upended that plan along with everything else. Hope you’re well and happy at home, and see you back at the theaters when they safely reopen.

Instead, I want to revisit the last live performance I saw, American Ballet Theatre’s world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s “Of Love and Rage.” I saw it twice, on March 5 and 6, at the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts. (I was all set to return for the third cast, but was felled by illness, luckily the flu and not coronavirus…and I never thought I’d say I was lucky to have the flu.)

My Voice of OC review is here and I stand by my initial reaction to it. But I also have some second thoughts, spurred by conversations with two friends. 

3.ABT Of Love and Rage-Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell in Act I _GRS9277@Gene Schiavone
ABT’s Catherine Hurlin as Callirhoe and Aran Bell as Chaereas in “Of Love and Rage.” Photo by Gene Schiavone

“Of Love and Rage” was entertaining, rather than a profound artistic statement. Its bravura choreography, particularly for the men, delivers on raw thrills. Ratmansky deftly tells a story that is nearly overwhelming with its myriad twists and subsidiary characters. He carves distinct personae for each part, one of his strengths as a choreographer. On the second evening, I noticed little narrative details I’d missed previously and subsequent viewings would have revealed other nuances, I have no doubt. The Khachaturian score (arranged by Philip Feeney) is emotionally powerful and the piano selections are strikingly beautiful. At the same time, I could see some of the work’s flaws: there’s a hokey hand-flapping number for the corps de ballet midway through and the story’s female parts are passive to the point of offensiveness.

And that gets to the heart of the problem that gnawed at my two friends, both of whom are former professional dancers. 

“Of Love and Rage” is adapted from a 2,000-year-old Greek novel called “Callirhoe” and it reflects the values of the ancient world. It’s OK to abuse women. Men own their wives. Women have no agency besides their physical beauty, which is prized above all. Slavery is accepted and widespread. So are all kinds of brutalities; in the novel, the hero, Chaereas, knocks out his wife, Callirhoe, in a jealous rage. The reader is presented with a happy ending, which in this case means the lovers, Callirhoe and Chaereas, are reunited. Is this a story worth adapting?

5.ABT Of Love and Rage-Catherine Hurlin as Callirhoe and Aran Bell as Chaereas_GRS0489@Gene Schiavone
Photo by Gene Schiavone

Ratmansky and dramaturg Guillaume Gallienne leave out the more harrowing plot points. In the same way that works by Homer and other ancient storytellers are appreciated today for the universal truths found within, “Callirhoe” is narrowed in an attempt to turn it into a tale of forgiveness. I’m just not sure this story, as currently told, does that, even with the strength of the dancing.

In the Ratmansky-Gallienne synopsis, Chaereas and Callirhoe argue, but he does not strike her. Even with that fundamental change, there’s no getting around that women, and Callirhoe especially, are portrayed as frail, beautiful objects. The ballet’s most sympathetic character is Dionysius, a nobleman who buys Callirhoe, but then falls in love with her, marries her and treats her, at least, more nearly as an equal. Ratmansky has one scene in which Dionysius scolds other men who are mistreating their wives. This is the good guy, this is proper behavior, Ratmansky seems to be insisting. But in the end, Callirhoe leaves Dionysius for the cad.

I’ve been wondering if the ballet could be salvaged. The lovers have a final pas de deux that is intended to demonstrate Chaereas’ remorse, but that message is not really coming through. Ratmansky could, in addition, give Callirhoe more power over her decision to reunite with Chaereas. What if, throughout the ballet, the female characters pushed back against their lot in life, instead of trying to outshine one another as in a beauty contest?  

The economics of putting on a full-length story ballet are such that it’s probably impossible to redo large sections of this piece, but it would be interesting if Ratmansky tried; some tweaking might work and he has the talent. “Of Love and Rage” is next scheduled to be performed on June 2, during ABT’s 80th anniversary season at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House. The company’s website notes that they’re delaying the sale of single tickets because of the uncertainty of the health emergency. “Of Love and Rage,” and the entire season, may become another casualty.

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