“SERIOUS” STUFF Foregoing the elaborate staging suggested by Paul McCartney’s story and music, Peter Martins made a stodgy, formal work, neither a throwback nor a pop-art collage.
NEW YORK — The synopsis for the new Peter Martins/Paul McCartney ballet Ocean's Kingdom reads like a pastiche of 19th– and early-20th-century plots. There's an underwater scene; an incursion of boisterous aliens; a party with entertainment by acrobats, drunken buskers, and a couple of sleek ballet dancers; a love triangle; an abduction; an escape; and of course a grand finale where the lovers unite, accompanied by extended pomp and circumstance. The ballet didn't look like any of its retrograde precedents, but it didn't look modern either.
The whole affair seemed to be a celebration of the erstwhile Beatle, whose music sounds like a traditional symphonic ballet score, with a few English music hall capers thrown in and, for the finale, a coronation anthem. Last Thursday's opening night gala featured red carpet arrivals and gawking crowds, an audience in black tie and beyond-fashion gowns, and a toast — in a teacup — by New York City Ballet artistic director/choreographer Peter Martins.
Before the ballet, the orchestra rose impressively from the pit on an elevator, the most spectacular feat of the evening, and conductor Fayçal Karoui led a little lecture-demonstration explicating the score. McCartney has been writing classical music for a while now, but it's strange to behold one of popular music's great innovators engaging in an old-fashioned sound and story. (McCartney also wrote the libretto.)
Foregoing the elaborate staging suggested by the plot and the music, Martins made a stodgy, formal work, neither a throwback nor a pop-art collage. There are no peasants or courtiers standing around the edges, no magic props or convertible set pieces. The costumes (by McCartney's daughter, fashion designer Stella McCartney) are coded according to dancing units. Charles Stanley's lighting and S. Katy Tucker's video and projections create all the scenic effects and illusions.
In other words, the stage is wide open for dancing. But the dancing falls into perfunctory groupings. The Water Maidens waft in curving pathways, with long silk panels that drift out from the back of their halter-top costumes when they run. The bad guys (called Terra Punks) wear mohawks and unitards with simulated tattoos, and leap aggressively in unison. At the party where the land and sea folk get together the Entertainers do acrobatics, led by Daniel Ulbricht, and bring along a classical couple in yellow (Megan LeCrone and Craig Hall) to do an extra pas de deux.
The meandering plot concerns the sea princess Honorata (Sara Mearns), who falls in love with an earthly Prince Stone (Robert Fairchild). The prince's brother, King Terra (Amar Ramasar), also fancies the princess and kidnaps her, with the help of Scala, the head sea-maiden (Georgina Pazcoguin), a woman of flexible morals. Eventually she repents and lets the princess escape from the dungeon where King Terra has unaccountably locked her up. For her good deed, Scala dies in a successful attempt to stop the evil brother's pursuing army. Holding together this makeshift storyline is a string of duets between Mearns and Fairchild, intended, I guess, to show off her luxurious backbends. She drapes herself around him ever more passionately, until some discreet but nevertheless vulgar couplings bring the ballet to an end. Somewhere in the middle they each get to dance a tiny variation.