Sea Legs–”Ocean’s Kingdom,” at New York City Ballet

After a lengthy hiatus, I made my first, tentative foray into the cornucopia of fall dance on Sept. 27, taking in the newly-commissioned “Ocean’s Kingdom” at the New York City Ballet. It was a disheartening experience. Many reviewers have already dissected this uninspired collaboration between Peter Martins (company director) and the erstwhile Beatle Paul McCartney (see the Times, Wall Street Journal, the New York Observer, The New Yorker, Financial Times, and even the usually magnanimous Oberon’s Grove), so it is perhaps pointless to go into great detail, but it is dispiriting to see such a significant investment of money (a reported $800 thousand) made with such lackluster results. Even more, it is unfortunate that, at a time when budgets are so tight and rehearsal time so limited, such a large commitment of time, talent and effort should be made to a work which offers little artistic satisfaction, and which, judging by the reaction of the audience, will not have much of an afterlife (unlike, say, Peter Martins’ “Romeo + Juliet” or his “Swan Lake”). After all, this is the house of Balanchine, and should be consistently offering the best and most innovative dance around, and taking risks, but not predictable risks like this one.

There is no doubt in my mind that the core of the problem is McCartney’s score. But what reason was there to think otherwise? McCartney’s brilliance as a composer of popular songs (and lyrics) is not in question, but it is almost insulting to think that writing symphonic music requires the same skill set as that for writing fantastic melodies that stay in your mind forever. McCartney has said many times that he does not read musical notation, but of course he had the assistance of an arranger (John Wilson) and orchestrator (Andrew Cottee) to help him along the way. But it’s not just about the difference between pop songs and symphonies; ballet music requires, above all else, powerful rhythms, the impulse for movement (this is one of the reasons why the Minimalist music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich are used so often). It also helps, when creating a story ballet (like “Ocean’s Kingdom”) to have clear development, contrasting textures and tempi, and dynamic variety. A ballet score doesn’t need to be great music—think of Minkus’s “Don Quixote” or Rodion Shchedrin’s “Little Humpbacked Horse”—but it does need energy, vitality, pulse. McCartney’s score has none of these; it rolls on and on, monotonously and repetitively, a kind of ocean of sound flowing inexorably from beginning to end. There are a few lumbering crescendi and faster tempi thrown in, but even these seem so dutiful that they barely register. In short, the score feels like background music—like the backdrop for a movie—rather than a vital partner in the action.

It must have been an uphill battle for Peter Martins to build momentum from this score. But of course, he commissioned it. One wonders why, other than the obvious draw of McCartney’s name. Sir Paul’s previous forays into the world of symphonic music have not been particularly successful, nor have they exhibited the qualities a choreographer might look for in music for dance. In any case, the result is choreography that looks as lifeless as the music sounds. The libretto (also by McCartney) doesn’t help. The problem isn’t that it’s an old-fashioned story—we have seen in Ratmansky’s work, for example, that the story ballet is alive and well, thank you very much—but that the story is so unspecific, so lacking in motivation or detail that it is difficult to build scenarios of any interest. Each scene functions as a set piece: the underwater court, the arrival of a group of outsiders, the party, the imprisonment, the escape, the blissful reunion of the lovers. But because there is no logic or context for the characters’ behavior, the action remains static, with no tension. Romeo and Juliet had the rivalries of Renaissance Verona to contend with and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Queen needed Siegfried to be released from her evil spell. But why do McCartney’s “Terrestrials” suddenly decide to invite the inhabitants of the underwater realm to a ball on dry ground? And why does Princess Honorata’s handmaiden (Scala) betray her mistress to the evil Prince Stone? We know why the Fairy Carabosse puts Aurora to sleep for a hundred years in “Sleeping Beauty” (out of spite for not being invited to her christening, and because she’s really, really mean), but we have no idea what secrets lie in Scala’s heart, especially after she turns out to be the heroine of the story.

Deprived of internal logic and musical impulse, the choreography never gets off the ground. Many of the scenes seem to be filled with empty walking to and fro, a kind of vapid simulacrum of courtly etiquette. Not even the watery element seems to have stimulated Martins’s imagination; there is little suggestion of currents or sea life or the quality of underwater movement (such an ingenious feature of Ratmansky’s recent “Humpbacked Horse”). The costumes for the underwater folk, by Stella McCartney, are not particularly evocative either. There are moments of virtuosity (especially for the men), with fast, multiple jumps and jabbing legs, but they too lead nowhere. Amar Ramasar, for all his clean, thrilling legwork, seems terribly miscast as the bad guy. He has the glee, but none of the darkness. Some coaching might have helped. Daniel Ulbricht is reduced to clownish fireworks in the role of the jester in the party scene, wearing a rainbow-color freak wig. Georgina Pazcoguin, who has the acting chops to pull off the role of the villainess-turned-heroine (Scala) is the only one who is able to inject some dynamic variety into her role. The best choreography in the ballet goes to an “exotic couple” who perform an acrobatic duet at the ball; Megan LeCrone and Craig Hall were excellent, and had the advantage of not having to pretend to be part of the action.

The central couple, Princess Honorata and Prince Stone, were danced by the excellent Sara Mearns and Robert Fairchild. Martins seems to be fascinated by Mearns’ strong legs, her dramatic qualities, and her pliant back, which he uses again and again in four pas de deux, all of which seem to be filled with turning arabesques and aching attitudes, and later, lifts in which Mearns repeatedly unfurls her powerful legs. I am sad to say that I don’t remember a single step of Fairchild’s. Instead, a gesture returns again and again; he enters, with an innocent, hurt look, arms curved outward, as if to say, “what is happening here?” Mearns’ Honorata is all yearning, pleading; love seems to be a painful thing indeed. In the most tormented, erotic of the pas de deux—after Honorata’s betrayal by Scala—Fairchild lowers Mearns to the ground, where she folds one leg over the other, planting grinding one pointe into the floor, and he pulls her up, laboriously, using every inch of his strength. It feels like such a heavy-handed, grappling move for this moment in which the two lovers are finally able to fully express their love and sexual attraction; there is no tenderness, no sense of wonder. As in much of the ballet, the tone is off.

The second ballet on the program was Balanchine’s “Union Jack.” It was as if a fog had lifted. What vitality! The patterns shifting across the stage, the witty steps, the sense of fun. And lest we forget, this is not top-drawer Balanchine. The music, Hershy Kay’s orchestrations of traditional British ditties, is vigorous and full of cheek, with rhythms to kick up one’s heels to. The entire cast danced happily and well. Janie Taylor lent a naughty, sly air to her sections, and Wendy Whelan, in her natty sailor’s uniform, danced the hornpipe like a bat out of hell. She has hit a point in her artistry where she no longer dances steps; she just dances and one stares at her in wonder.

After not one but two large, lumbering ballets meant to bring in a more varied public—remember “The Seven Deadly Sins”?—it’s time for New York City Ballet to get back to the business of presenting innovative, risk-taking, exciting work.

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Marina Harss is a translator and dance writer in New York City. Recent translations include Elisabeth Gille’s ”The Mirador” and Alberto Moravia’s ”Two Friends.” Her dance writing has appeared in The N ...read more

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