After 12 years as artist-in-residence at American Ballet Theatre, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky is making his first long-form ballet for the company: “Of Love and Rage,” which premieres Thursday at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa before traveling to New York in June as part of ABT’s 80th anniversary season.
It was only January when the eminent dance master first presented his steps to the company, “and now there is no time for thinking or preparing anything,” he said recently during a break in rehearsals. “The dancers need to learn it and get it under their skin.”
If it’s not the greatest love story ever told, then it might very well be the oldest. The new dance is based on “Callirhoe,” written by 1st-century Greek novelist Chariton, a romantic adventure about the renowned beauty Callirhoe and her beloved Chaereas. Jealous suitors, bewitched by Callirhoe’s charms, conspire to trick Chaereas into thinking his new bride is unfaithful. The pair is parted and forced to endure war and mayhem before being reunited, wiser and deeper in love.
“The center of the story is love, very passionate love which, of all the emotions and themes, lends itself best to dance and ballet,” Ratmansky said. “The classic vocabulary is very heavily influenced by ancient Greek visuals, their sculptures. So, I think the language that I used, which is neoclassical, there is no conflict between the style and the story. There are contemporary touches there, but it’s more a neoclassical style of dancing.”
Ratmansky has numerous stories that he would love to tell, if only he could find the right music. Likewise there is music he hopes to set steps to one day, if only he could find the right story. “Of Love and Rage” is matched with composer Aram Khachaturian’s score, which consists mostly of selections from his second ballet, the 1941 “Gayane,” rarely performed in the West and not nearly as well known as his most acclaimed work, “Spartacus.”
Having matched story and music, Ratmansky began paring down the libretto with renowned filmmaker, actor and writer Guillaume Gallienne. Once the libretto was matched to Khachaturian’s score, Ratmansky began sketching out movements.
The cast is chosen long before rehearsals so costume designers can begin work, press releases can be issued, and ticket presales offered. The leads, Callirhoe and Chaereas, rotate between three pairs: Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell, Hee Seo and Calvin Royal III, and veterans Christine Shevchenko and Thomas Forster. The last two danced a pas de deux from the new ballet at the December ABT gala in Beverly Hills, although the dance has since been deleted from the finished work.
“Christine and Thomas are more experienced. They’re like late bloomers,” Ratmansky said. “It’s only last season that both of them started to really shine with everything they did on the stage. So, this is an exciting couple.”
Shevchenko and Forster were paired in Ratmansky’s “Nutcracker” in recent years and will pair again in “Swan Lake” later this season.
“The wedding duet, it’s so powerful and there are really cool lifts and beautiful movements. Definitely the strongest parts are the duets,” Shevchenko said of her role as a woman so beautiful that all who gaze upon her are bewitched. Naturally, her charms are best represented through movement.
“Beauty in ballet is defined by how the body moves in space,” said Ratmansky, a MacArthur fellow who was artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet for four years before joining ABT. “I give them material that will challenge them and they can show their technicality, their virtuosic technique and also their lyricism and dramatic abilities. It’s quite a challenging role. They have a lot of dancing.”
The one doing the lifting, Forster, a soloist since 2015, finds the duets demanding. For reference and inspiration the cast has been studying old black-and-white footage of dancers performing athletic lifts that have left some of them gobsmacked.
“The audience can tell whether a lift is physically challenging,” Forster said. “I think you appreciate something that looks difficult, and our job is to make it not look difficult. But I think for an audience to see a big lift that can go wrong is probably more exciting to them than a boring one.”
Shevchenko joined ABT’s corps in 2008, made principal dancer in 2017 and, like Forster, has been working with Ratmansky for years.
“It’s contemporary and classical ballet together. It’s his own creation,” she said of the new work. “He’s done a lot of staging work but this is different. And I would say this is what he’s so good at is creating his own thing.”
New short ballets pose less of a challenge for a company and are therefore more common. But in a market driven by subscribers and their preference for familiar titles, ABT assumes some risk mounting a brand new, full-length ballet.
“It’s vital to try on new things and create new titles,” Ratmansky said. “When it comes to the full-length, it’s very difficult to make a successful work that will be loved by the audience. So, it is very risky but it’s very important to try.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday
Info: (714) 556-2121, scfta.org
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)