“Callirhoe” is one of five complete Greek prose novels that have survived from antiquity. They constituted a genre, with certain conventions: “Each centers on the trials and tribulations of a romantic couple,” Stephen M. Trzaskoma, the director of the Center for the Humanities at the University of New Hampshire, wrote in the introduction to his translation of “Callirhoe.” “The general pattern involves separation of the lovers, adventures in faraway lands, and a reunion with a happy ending.” (The better known “Daphnis and Chloe,” used as the basis for ballets by both Michel Fokine and Frederick Ashton, is another example of the genre.)
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Like the Greek tragedies and Homeric epics, these “adventures” are not for the faint of heart: the story has its fair share of brutality. Callirhoe’s great beauty, often compared to Aphrodite’s, makes her the target for the desire of practically every man she meets. “As the story progresses,” Ratmansky said, “the men have more and more power, but morally, they are lower and lower.”
One of the things Ratmansky had to contend with is the violent act that, in the novel, sets the story in motion. Soon after the young lovers, Callirhoe and Chaereas, are married, Chaereas is tricked into believing Callirhoe has been unfaithful. In a fit of jealous rage, he confronts her. In the novel, he kicks her, after which she appears to die. She has actually fallen into a kind of coma. (There is a similar plot point in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” which the British ancient historian Paul Cartledge said in an email was probably influenced by “Callirhoe.”)
In Ratmansky’s ballet, there is no kick. Instead, Chaereas confronts Callirhoe, who, finding herself accused, collapses in frustration. The confrontation happens offstage, as in a Greek tragedy. “There is a chorus, who comment on the action, letting the audience know that something terrible has occurred,” Ratmansky said.