George Balanchine once said that there are “no mothers-in-law in ballet”. What this really means is that in ballet, plots should be simple and easy to understand. In Of Love and Rage, receiving its New York premiere this week, Alexei Ratmansky seems determined to turn this dictum on its head. In his ballet there is a mother- and father-in-law, a fake death, someone being buried alive, an unplanned pregnancy, a marriage of convenience, a war between Egypt and Babylon…

Of Love and Rage
© Gene Schiavone

I caught the second performance and found it entertaining and frustrating in equal measure. There are some wonderful things about Ratmansky’s ballet. For one, he uses Aram Khachaturian’s score to Gayane. It’s bombastic, but compulsively listenable. The sets and costumes by Jean-Marc Puissant are stunning, conveying the world of antiquity Greece perfectly. If the costumes for the Babylonians and Egyptians veers into camp, that’s part of the charm. The large cast means many opportunities for American Ballet Theatre’s corps to shine.

The main weakness with Of Love and Rage is the convoluted plot. The story of Callirhoe and Chaereas is based on an ancient Greek novel and it suffers from the fact that the main hero (Chaereas) is less likable than his romantic rival (Dionysius). Chaereas flies into a rage at some flimsy planted evidence of Callirhoe’s infidelity, and does something to her offstage and the next thing we see is him carrying her lifeless body onstage. (Of course, she’s not really dead but...) Not really a prize. Dionysius, on the other hand, is a mensch. He falls in love with Callirhoe and marries her despite knowing she is pregnant with another man’s child. He treats his wife and stepson well, and at the end of the ballet he loves Callirhoe so much that he lets her go and re-unites Callirhoe and Chaereas with their son. I hope he finds true love after the curtain comes down.

Christine Shevchenko in Of Love and Rage
© Gene Schiavone

The second act’s dramaturgy also falls apart. In Act 1, it’s fairly easy to follow the plot without looking at the program. But the second starts with a “dream” ballet that summarizes the first act and only gets more muddled. Mithridates and the King of Babylon both fall in love with Callirhoe and both have retinues of corps dancers. The King of Babylon also has a wife with her retinue of ladies. It’s not entirely clear, however, how any of this is connected to the plot. By the time Callirhoe and Chaereas are finally reunited, it was so many plot twists ago that I barely remembered when they were together.

Ratmansky responds to the very Soviet-sounding score with choreography that seems like a loving homage to the kind of dram-ballets of the Bolshoi. Dance nerds will enjoy seeing which ballets are sampled. There are many times when the male contingent does a Spartacus-like thundering, leaping diagonal. Callirhoe and Chaereas express their love with a duet that has some of Soviet ballet’s greatest hits – I saw both the Grigorovich “torch” lift and Lavrovsky’s arm-outstretched lift from Romeo and Juliet. But Ratmansky also self-borrows – there’s a lot of that “grab hand, jump up” partnering he used in Concerto DSCH, as well as the “flying crane” lift in which a dancer is carried by corps members like a bird swooping down. The reunion pas de deux echoes some of the mirror dancing of the reunion pas between Titania and Oberon in Ashton’s The Dream.

Christine Shevchenko and Thomas Forster in Of Love and Rage
© Gene Schiavone

The cast was overall excellent. Thomas Forster (Chaereas) showed superhuman stamina and strength in the role of Spartacus, er I mean Chaereas. His upper body strength in all those lifts, and his ability to barrel around onstage in manèges and diagonals of jumps was unflagging. Christine Shevchenko (Callirhoe) had a limpid, romantic épaulement, a gorgeously arching arabesque and a sweet, innocent persona.

Blaine Hoven (Dionysius) was wonderful – truly the salt of the earth. Eric Tamm had a surprising amount of bravura dancing as Chaereas’s friend Polycharmus, which he dispatched with ease. Jarod Curley (Mithridates) Roman Zhurbin (King of Babylon) were deliciously camp villains. The emptiest role of the night goes to Queen of Babylon (Chloe Misseldine). She sashayed onstage in a fetching turquoise outfit, looked pretty, and that was it. I enjoyed Zimmi Coker and Zhong-Jing Fang as Callirhoe and Chaereas’ servants, respectively. Both conveyed happiness and loyalty.

Will Of Love and Rage last? Hard to say. The house was depressingly empty last night, although that might have more to do with how conservative and resistant to new works ABT’s audience tends to be. (I’ll never forget the cold, hostile response to Duo concertant some years back.) I do know that despite the confusing plot and a weaker second act, I was never bored. That’s a win.