NEW YORK — Given the Beatles’ fame as a group that revolutionized popular music, I had some hope for Paul McCartney’s new ballet Ocean’s Kingdom, which premiered last week at the New York City Ballet. But if the music is agreeable enough, it is hardly revelatory, tending toward repetitive blandness; and the few intriguing passages, which manage to evoke a deep sea spookiness, seem likely to owe much to the arranger and orchestrator (John Wilson and Andrew Cottee). Worse, it seems Sir Paul — who wrote not only the music for the ballet, but also the libretto — believes that contemporary ballet is trapped in a world of evil sorceresses, monarchies, and archaic gender roles.
And let’s add to that list of requirements a convoluted narrative: Ocean’s Kingdom‘s unintelligibility rating is not quite as high as that of Le Corsaire (the 19th-century ballet notorious for the fact that, well, it makes not a lick of sense), but thanks to Peter Martins’ sketchy choreography it comes pretty close.
The synopsis, in brief (the 50-minute ballet merits a page of program notes): Princess Honorata (Sara Mearns) and her father, King Ocean (Christian Tworzyanski), live in an idyllic underwater kingdom, whose tranquility is upset by the arrival of King Terra (Amar Ramasar), his brother Prince Stone (Robert Fairchild), and their tattooed, wild retinue of Earth people. Honorata and Stone fall in love, but Terra, who also lusts after the Princess, kidnaps her with the help of Honorata’s handmaiden Scala (Georgina Pazcoguin, making the most of a choreographically bankrupt role). Prince Stone shows up at Terra’s palace to save his beloved, who languishes behind bars; Scala repents, aids their escape, and in the ensuing battle sacrifices herself. Prince and Princess mourn her death until happier music begins to play, the two are propelled (oh so suddenly) back into giddy love, and they are married.
The ballet feels a bit like Frankenstein’s monster, conceits and characters pulled together from the corpses of once-lively fairy stories. The resulting tale is dead-eyed, aimless, and unworthy of being staged. Martins neither tells the story clearly (the moment when Honorata escapes her prison is muddled, as is Scala’s death: she merely disappears into the smoke of a fog machine), nor fleshes out the characters through his choreography. None of the many pas de deux for Honorata and Stone are significantly different from any of the others: all rely on the same sort of movements (lots and lots of long promenades en pointe, some running about the stage, the obligatory lift) and static poses (most of which feature Honorata bent backward, supported by her prince). While Mearns is one of the company’s best dramatic dancers, Honorata has been doomed to bracket her long moment of wounded anguish with lots of giggling and swooning.
There may be a few things to take away from the performance. Perhaps most notably, it demonstrated a combination of video projection (by S. Katy Tucker) and lighting design (by Mark Stanley) that successfully worked together to tell a story and create a palpable atmosphere. The wispy designs projected onto the blue background in the first scene, illuminated by a graduated underwater light from above, suggested a kingdom in danger of being washed away. Most innovative were the pillars of light that confined Honorata to her cell in the third movement: they created an eerie mood that fit the piece, which bars of steel might have failed to do. I do worry that digital scenery will too often take the place of traditional sets in the future – surely it must be less expensive. Here, though, it made a strange sort of sense.
Stella McCartney’s costumes, too, while often unflattering to the dancers’ lines, were nevertheless invigorating. King Terra’s entourage took on the tattoo-sporting, leather-donning aesthetic of a biker gang (though she gave the King a sleekly tailored waistcoat in the grand ball), and the conventional, flowy garb of water sprites mingled with zebra stripes and stringy ponytails of toxic, algae-green. Unfortunately, these were only cosmetic fixes to a deeply flawed ballet.
Balanchine’s Union Jack, which made up the second half of the program on Tuesday evening, was a welcome change of pace. Choreographed as an amusingly contrary tribute to the United Kingdom on the occasion of the United States’ bicentennial, it is not Balanchine’s finest artistic work: it gleefully tramples the line dividing nationalistic fervor from camp. Yet like Stars and Stripes (1958), its similarly ridiculous American cousin, Union Jack‘s brand of sentimentality is irresistible, tempered by choreographic intelligence and an irreverent attitude.
The most impressive section of Union Jack is the first, a military procession of no fewer than 70 dancers, all dressed in traditional Scottish regalia. The opening several minutes are about as spare as Balanchine’s choreography gets – the dancers, in seven groups, march onstage solemnly, arms swinging decisively in front of them in an imitation of military precision. In the hands of a lesser choreographer, such repetition could easily turn boring, but Balanchine moves his dancers about the stage with mesmerizing skill. Following this opening, each group gets its own dance, the most interesting of which is the percussive MacDonald of Sleat variation, danced with fierce intensity on Tuesday by Wendy Whelan and her regiment of nine women. Joaquin De Luz, tearing through the fast footwork of his solo, was also exciting to watch; and Janie Taylor, here and in the final movement of the ballet, seemed to be having a ball—tongue firmly in cheek throughout, but also receptive to being caught up in the ballet’s joie de vivre.
After the amusing (though somewhat too long) costermonger pas de deux, a riff on music-hall theatre with Andrew Veyette and Megan Fairchild dancing the hammy roles of Pearly King and Queen, the final movement of the ballet ensues: a fun-filled homage to the Royal Navy that includes flirting sailors, a bit of mugging for the audience from Jared Angle, and some complex flag waving at the end that is a semaphore code for “God save the Queen.” And lest we’ve forgotten that these aesthetically pleasing formations have been co-opted from the military, a few cannon booms settle over the final notes of Hershy Kay’s arrangement of traditional British tunes.
Balanchine was hardly a snob when it came to art: he enjoyed playing with more popular art forms, like film and musical theatre, and was more apt to describe his choreography as a craft – cooking was a favorite metaphor – than as high art. Union Jack is a fine example of an artistic success that is also a crowd-pleaser.
But as Ocean’s Kingdom joins a growing pile of choreographic train wrecks (a drab revival of Seven Deadly Sins and the vapid For the Love of Duke were last years’ attempts to bring in new audiences), it seems NYCB is more concerned with ticket sales than artistic integrity. There are certainly many composers and choreographers, young and established, who are doing exciting work, and looking for work. Why not give them, and the audience, a chance?