Even among elite choreographers, Alexei Ratmansky early on generated great excitement. American Ballet Theatre hired him the nanosecond he left the celebrated — but notoriously hidebound — Bolshoi Ballet, where he was artistic director from 2004 to the end of 2008.
ABT created the new position of Artist in Residence just for him. His primary task: to create new ballets.
But that shorthand hardly summarizes the impact Ratmansky has had since moving to New York City in 2009. America’s second oldest classical troupe had lost some of its luster after Mikhail Baryshnikov’s departure 20 years earlier. Ratmansky has helped to transform and enliven the troupe and has enriched the canon of classical dance, in addition. This former principal dancer with the Royal Winnipeg and Royal Danish Ballet companies is a musically sensitive and imaginative storyteller, and he inspires exceptional portrayals from its 85 dancers.
He has made 16 new works for ABT in 11 years (he also freelances elsewhere). Southern California audiences have had the privilege of seeing almost half of these new pieces because Segerstrom Center presents ABT almost every year and because it gives the company an extra week of rehearsal time onstage to ready new ballets. Three of Ratmansky’s productions have already premiered in Costa Mesa — “Firebird” (2012), “Sleeping Beauty” (2015) and “Whipped Cream” (2017).
Now the fourth is about to debut. Set during the Greek empire of 400 BC, it is called “Of Love and Rage” and premieres at Segerstrom Hall March 5–8.
“There are going to be some references (to ancient Greece but) I use a lot of classical repertory. The ladies are on pointe and the men will jump and turn,” he said, laughing at his description, both plain and obvious. “The music more or less dictates the movement I’m going to use.”
Ratmansky is helping to shepherd a new generation of homegrown young stars and his casting for “Of Love and Rage” reflects that. Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell, two promising soloists, will portray the heroine and hero on opening night. Ratmansky has known Hurlin since he tapped her to be Clara in his 2010 “Nutcracker.”
“I have very enjoyable freedom in my casting decisions,” Ratmansky said in a phone interview. “I choreographed Clara in the ‘Nutcracker’ when she (Hurlin) was 10 or 12 years old. That was her first feature (role), and now she’s doing the principal part in the world premiere. She and Aran Bell, these two are up-and-coming (stars). I’ve been able to give some dancers roles that they later shined in and I’m very happy and satisfied when it works out.”
Ratmansky generally begins a ballet with music he’s had in mind, as opposed to a particular story or a desire to explore new movement. For some time, he had been wanting to use Soviet-Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian’s “Gayane,” ballet music composed in 1943 that is little known in this country except for its familiar Sabre Dance section. It does have one claim to pop culture history: Director Stanley Kubrick inserted the five-minute “Gayane’s Adagio” into “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
But Ratmansky had not figured out what to do with this dramatic, large-orchestra score. Enter Guillaume Gallienne, actor, director, librettist and friend. The two had previously collaborated on an adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s novel “Lost Illusions” for the Bolshoi. Gallienne suggested Ratmansky take a look at “Callirhoe,” a 2,000-year novel filled with pirate adventures and kidnapping, slaves and royalty, war and a love story between the two best-looking people in the world, the maiden Callirhoe — “whose beauty was not mortal but divine” — and Chaereas — who was “more handsome than all the others,” as the text describes them. Like any juicy story from Greek antiquity, the gods toy mercilessly with the couple. After ordeals aplenty, destiny reunites them. Or, maybe it’s something else.
“I am fascinated by the topic of forgiveness This is a story about how anger and jealousy tear two people apart — two people who are madly in love. Forgiveness is the only way they can reunite, and forgiveness requires strength,” Ratmansky told the audience at a December event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Although it was written thousands of years ago, the complexity of the relationship at its core — and the tough choices Callirhoe and Chaereas face — feels very modern and relevant.”
Ratmansky and Gallienne pared down the story, and then composer and pianist Philip Feeney re-arranged the score, adding in some Khachaturian piano music. ABT conductors will lead the Pacific Symphony during the run.
“Callirhoe” has a twisting, complex story set in various locales from the city of Syracuse, Sicily, to outside Athens and on to Babylon, in today’s Iraq. The creators are changing or leaving out some of the novel’s gruesome incidents, including a crucifixion and scenes of domestic abuse.
“We worried (about) these acts of violence,” Ratmansky said. “I just looked at some Greek tragedies, and the acts of violence are not performed onstage. It happens offstage. …The story is about the transformation of love and the ability to forgive and reunite at the end, after everything they went through.”
Jean-Marc Puissant, a professional dancer-turned-award-winning scenic designer, will create both the sets and costumes for “Of Love and Rage.” Over two acts, the ballet has a multitude of scenes and sub-scenes, perhaps as many as 10 — the exact number was still being determined as this story went to press. Scenery and costumes were constructed in three specialty workshops in the northeast and when it is all assembled and put up on the Segerstrom Hall stage, Ratmansky, artistic director Kevin McKenzie, dancers and crew will see the ballet brought to life for the first time.
“It’s nerve-wracking because you never know if it’s going to work or not,” Ratmansky said about the moment of the big reveal.
The choreographer recently had success with another new work, an abstract piece called “Voices,” made for New York City Ballet, the company steeped in George Balanchine’s mostly storyless ballets. For ABT, which is a more traditional classical troupe, Ratmansky has made both narrative and abstract pieces.
“Of course, these are very different projects, but on the other hand, it’s the same thing: you make a new ballet. And some abstract ballets can tell stories, as well. I’m mostly driven by the music so that’s how I make decisions whether to tell a story or not,” said Ratmansky, whose contract with ABT has been renewed through 2023.
“Story ballets are a huge challenge. You’re not only providing steps. You need to be telling something else. A story onstage gives dancers opportunities to be actors and they love that. They love to love or suffer or die.”
‘Of Love and Rage’
What: American Ballet Theatre presents the world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s new ballet
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 5 and Friday, March 6, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 8 and 1 p.m. Sunday, March 8
Where: Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa
Casting: Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell will dance Thursday and the Saturday matinee; Christine Shevchenko and Thomas Forster will perform Friday and Sunday; Hee Seo and Calvin Royal III will the principals Saturday night.
Information: 714-556-2787 or www.scfta.org