New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
September 22, 2011
by Mary Cargill
copyright © 2011 by Mary Cargill
Paul McCartney, that is, who in a blaze of publicity, dominated the New York City Ballet's fall gala as the composer and librettist of the new ballet. Had his name been Paul McGillicuddy, the company probably would not have spent $800,000 to produce his ballet, and he wouldn't have been greeted with the echoes of nearly fifty year old squeals, but I suspect that any choreographer would have jumped at the opportunity to use the music. After all, melodic, atmospheric, rhythmic, vivid and danceable scores don't turn up everyday. There were apparent nods throughout the score to other composers--Debussey in the misty overture, Stravinsky in the knotty music for the bad guys, and even Tchaikovsky in the mini-apotheosis, but it has lovely melodies and distinctive rhythms, and was both clear and enjoyable. The evening opened with the orchestra rising to ground level to give a "see the music" tour of the new score. The conductor, Fayçal Karoui, introduced the excerpts, and spoke eloquently about their beauty; he did seem genuinely thrilled to play the score, and the audience seemed genuinely delighted with it.
The story, though, has some rough edges. It is a fantasy set in an underwater kingdom; early talk said it was based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid", but little of that complex, magical fable about love, sacrifice, and death show up in "Ocean's Kingdom". There are underwater creatures and earth dwellers in the new ballet, but they have no difficulties in each other's realms, so the underlying idea of so many fairy tales of two incompatible worlds isn't developed. The water princess Honorata (a luscious Sara Mearns), and her father King Ocean, are invited to a ball by King Terra (Amar Ramasar, who got to scowl and jump), during which Honorata and King Terra's brother, Prince Stone (Robert Fairchild, which does a lot of lifting) fall in love in a scene reminiscent of Tony and Maria at the gym. King Terra also wants Honorata and with the help of her handmaid Scala (a vivid Georgina Pazcoguin) abducts her. Scala has a change of heart and helps Stone rescue Honorata, dying in the process, and Stone and Honorata end up back underwater to some lovely apotheosis music. But Scala's change of heart is as inexplicable as her original betrayal, and since Stone and Terra never have it out, there is nothing to stop Terra and his goons (or punks as the program call them) from recapturing Honorata. Fairy tales do have an emotional logic which this story lacks, though the music itself almost compensates.
The choreography is rather bland, but usually avoids Peter Martins' tendency to fussy things up. The opening is quite striking, as the sea dwellers let their arms float, and creates a real sense of place. Honorata's prison scene is also very effective, as she is boxed in by a series of pillars made of light. Mearns mimed her despair expressionistically, rather like poor Petrushka in his cell. Otherwise, Honorata tended to alternate between arabesques and swoons. Mearns of course was magnificent, filling out the movement and dominating the stage (though why she and Stone would spend an inordinate amount of time fondling each other when she got out of jail rather than running away immediately and waiting until they were safe is a mystery). Most of the actual choreography was given to a set of entertainers, led by Daniel Ulbricht. (For some reason, though they first appeared as the hired help at the Terra's ball, they ended up celebrating with the ocean folks at the end.) He did his usual jumps and spins, graceful and exciting, but the choreography didn't add up to much. There was also an "exotic couple", Megan LeCrone and Craig Hall, who seemed to be auditioning for the "Agon" pas de deux.
The scenery, by Perry Silvey, and projections, by S. Katy Tucker, were simple and very effective, especially the turquoise underwater feeling. The costumes, by Stella McCartney, got almost as much publicity as the music, but, for me, they weren't very successful. Mearns had to dance in an uneven skirt, short in the front and very long at the back, with a plunging neckline and no tights, and it made her look almost squat. Pazcoguin was saddled with a huge cape as well as an insecure looking neckline, which tended to obscure her powerful presence. The Terras sported Mohawk haircuts (only Stone escaped the barber) and intricate tattoos. The looked more decorative than frightening, especially since their choreography made them look like gymnasts rather than warriors. Many of the other costumes involved tunics which again obscured the dancers, though poor Daniel Ulbricht was anything but obscure, as he had to wear a wig and body suit which looked like Bozo the Clown had taken a bath in Koolaid.
In his gracious introduction, during which he toasted Sir Paul with a cup of tea, Martins implied that this might not be the only collaboration between them. Clearly NYCB's coffers would benefit, but if this score is anything to go on, so would ballet.
copyright © 2011 by Mary Cargill
Photos by Paul Kolnik
1st: Curtain call for "Ocean's Kingdom"
2nd: Amar Ramasar, Robert Fairchild, Sara Mearns and Georgina Pazcoguin
3rd: Sara Mearns and Robert Fairchild
4th: The Terra Punks