American Ballet Theatre's Of Love and Rage Review: The Story Woven Into Every Step
American Ballet Theatre’s Of Love and Rage Review June 20, 2022 | Metropolitan Opera House – New York, NY, US
At the close of the Metropolitan Opera House’s curtain on Monday night, boisterous applause filled the 3,800-seat theatre, and if you looked closely, you could have seen the conductor say “fantastic” to his pit of virtuosic musicians.
Led by their animated conductor, Ormsby Wilkins, the orchestra did indeed play Aram Khachaturian’s score fantastically. Full of sweeping brass, tender harps, and prickly piano notes, his music is a natural vehicle for an antiqued story. Alexei Ratmansky explores a narrative in a post-diluvial world, yet still ancient by today’s standards, in his recent creation on American Ballet Theatre, Of Love and Rage.
The start of the ballet is simple and quick. A flourish of the harp and suddenly the curtain is open; no time for an overture, we have a story to tell!
The stage is airy, and although there are sets, they are placed far back and off to the side, freeing up valuable space unlike some traditional classical ballets. Greek columns adorn the stage here and there, between more substantial building remnants, and the backdrop is a pure, blue sky.
A repeated image throughout is the enormous face of Aphrodite. At times her face appears cracked and worn, an echo of the story.
I was not surprised to read that Jean-Marc Puissant, the creative mind behind the scenery and costumes, has worked with opera. The captivating sets reminded me so much of the shows the Metropolitan Opera House was made for; bold, imaginative, abstract but also steeped in history.
And the costumes, oh the costumes! As the story progresses through different lands, the adornments change from sleek, Grecian costumes to blousy, comfortable fabrics and finally to rich, lush jewel-tones.
The story is entwined in the clothing just as much as the score and the steps.
American Ballet Theatre's Of Love and Rage
Of Love and Rage is a dramatic retelling of the ancient Greek novel, Callirhoe, in which a young man (Chaereas) in 400 B.C Syracuse falls in love with a devastatingly beautiful woman (Callirhoe). Misinformation leads Chaereas to believe his beloved is unfaithful and, in Ratmansky’s version, she collapses (in the original text she suffers from a physical altercation) but is presumed dead. Her mistaken death leads her to be captured by pirates, re-married (spoiler: with Chaereas’ child), taken by the King of Babylon, waiting as Chaereas fights through a war, until finally a resolution for the couple materializes.
It’s a hefty narrative to portray through dance and Ratmansky is committed to telling the story.
Every step is dedicated to the cause, there is no superfluous pas de deux or lengthy, questionable dream scene. Because of this, the first act is a whirlwind of events, moving from one moment to the next. The result gives the feeling of following rather than running alongside, at times the story overshadowing Ratmansky’s inventive choreography.
His steps are intricate, vigorous, and folksy at times. He takes the best of older classical movements and infuses them with new shapes. While a more classic pas de deux, for example, would call for typical partnering grips, which tend to be straight forward hand-in-hand, Ratmansky weaves limbs together, new geometric patterns emerging.
Corps members partner each other, indifferent of gender, in trios and pairs, on the floor or in lifts. It creates complexity and depth.
A true choreographer will build a pattern or theme to reprise. In the lovers’ first meeting, they each carve one knee in and out, like an affectionate nuzzle of two lovebirds. Later, when things are tumultuous, that same step is laborious, almost painful.
The female corps dancers also have a move, a gentle cascade of the arm down the front of the face which is at first seductive but melancholic when repeated.
The story is so thoughtfully woven into every step, you might miss a detail when you blink.
On opening night our Callirhoe and Chaereas were danced by Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell. Superbly matched, the pair are two comets blazing across the stage.
Hurlin, who I would bet money on getting promoted soon, is feathery and volcanic, delicate and gutsy. Every time she molded her body into an arc, the energy poured over her like water rushing across the curve of a rainbow. Her acting is splendid; she executes the role with the skills of a seasoned artist. Is it possible to make one’s eyes sparkle? Because Hurlin’s do.
Bell is calculated, spirited, and confident with every move he makes. I’ve never seen a dancer so calmly prepare for a difficult step or to jump into fourth position and execute perfect pirouettes. He approaches the stage with ease, and his acting has only gotten better because of this. His first sighting of Callirhoe is full of foolish naivete and then his heartbreak only moments later is deeply sorrowful.
Ratmansky asks a lot of his dancers (deeper pliés, further reaches, to hover like a drone) and Hurlin and Bell step up to his challenge.
A pleasant surprise was Courtney Shealy as Plangon, Callirhoe’s second husband’s servant. Shealy brought fast footwork and a cheeky curiosity as she sat Callirhoe down for a woman-to-woman talk.
Playing Dionysius, new guest artist Daniel Camargo was precise and engaging in his role as the commiserable second husband.
A member of the corps de ballet, Andrii Ishchuk stood out as Chaereas’ friend Polycharmus. Although not integral to the story, it seems a leading man does best when he has a solid mate by him. Ishchuk’s movements are bright and breezy; definitely someone to watch.
A sextet of Babylonian Courtiers stole the second act (Michael de la Nuez, Patrick Frenette, Cameron McCune, Duncan McIlwaine, Jose Sebastian, and Kento Sumitani) with a brilliant display of bravura, heightened by the recognizable Khachaturian tune.
It's clear when watching his work that Ratmansky has a vision.
His dancers are placed like exquisite chess pieces adorning the narrative, each one so particularly arranged across the story line. Although the heavy commitment to the story made some moments too prosaic, the theme of love stood strong.
In fact, the audience’s expression of love via standing ovation caused the curtain to stall during the bows, allowing a few more raucous cheers in.
And the love between two colleagues, shown when Hurlin and Bell shared a victorious hug during their page bow, was a sweet end to a wonderful opening night.
Featured Photo for American Ballet Theatre’s Of Love and Rage review of Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell. Photo by Gene Schiavone.
Nadia Vostrikov is a former television actress and dancer for Boston Ballet II, Alberta Ballet, and numerous freelance dance companies. She currently works as a Digital Marketer in NYC. (Photo by: Katrina Cunningham)