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New York City Ballet: 'Ocean's Kingdom'

by Jerry Hochman

September 22, 2011 -- David Koch Theatre, New York, NY

Sir Paul has a new career.

“Ocean’s Kingdom,” New York City Ballet’s new addition to the repertoire, choreographed to a commissioned score of the same name by Paul McCartney, had its world premiere tonight. The good news is that Mr. McCartney has composed a flat out fabulous work of art, a score that echoes in the mind and the heart long after the performance ends. The music is everything that audiences expect ballet music to be: it is lush, melodic, dramatic, danceable, and it clearly tells the story that Sir Paul wanted told (he wrote the libretto as well). I thought I heard echoes of early Stravinsky, a little French and Russian Romantic, and a little Asian influence, but the piece stands on its own. While some might consider it retro program music, I thought it was wonderful; a gift not only to NYCB, but to anyone interested in beautiful music.

The ballet is another matter. I would like to be able to say that it was as wonderful as the music, but where the various points of emphasis and stylistic musical patterns in Mr. McCartney’s composition came together as a unified work, “Ocean’s Kingdom” the ballet, to this viewer, took the same points of emphasis and musical patterns and created a mixture of disparate parts that failed to mesh into a cohesive whole.

The “Ocean’s Kingdom” premiere provided the occasion for NYCB’s Fall Gala, and it appeared as if most of the audience had been invitees to the pre-performance cocktail party on the David H. Koch Theater mezzanine, and/or to the post-performance festivities adjacent to the theater. If there was a ‘theme’ to the Gala this year, it was Mr. McCartney himself, who was celebrated and honored and welcomed into the ballet world by adoring upper crust fans and closet Beatlemaniacs.

“Ocean’s Kingdom” was the only ballet on the program, but the evening began with a brief introduction to, and celebration of, Mr. McCartney’s composition. Led by NYCB’s Music Director, Faycal Karoui, the NYCB orchestra played excerpts from the new score, each of which was preceded by laudatory explanations of each excerpt’s significance in the ballet. Initially, Mr. Karoui’s fawning praise of Mr. McCartney and his music seemed sycophantic, but it quickly became apparent that the gushing was well-deserved admiration, and it quickly became equally apparent that the audience leaned back in their seats, collectively smiled, and knew they were in for a treat.

“Ocean’s Kingdom” is short (less than an hour in length), and is divided into four ‘scenes’ corresponding to the four movements of the score and the four parts of Mr. McCartney’s fairy/folk tale story. King Ocean (a minor role in the piece) has this daughter, Princess Honorata. They live in an underwater kingdom populated by handmaidens, water maidens, and courtiers – and a character named Scala who is ‘in charge’ of the handmaidens (she’s a combination chaperone and wicked witch). One day their idyllic waterworld is invaded by a rowdy tribe of strangely dressed earth people (called Terra Punks), who are ruled by King Terra, who (very aggressively) invites the ocean people to a ‘grand ball,’ which I suppose was an offer the ocean people couldn’t refuse. [One accepts on faith that there has been prior contact between the ocean kingdom people and the earth kingdom people (though the earth people “intrude” on the ocean people – according to the program notes), that each can breathe in the other’s atmosphere, and that one kingdom is a brief walking, or swimming, distance from the other. This is a fairy tale, after all.]

King Terra is accompanied on this visit by his younger brother, Prince Stone, and Prince Stone and Princess Honorata fall in love with each other. [There’s no hint of the Prince being from the wrong side of the beach – the only persons who have a problem with the Princess and Prince falling in love are King Terra, who covets the Princess himself, and Scala, who’s just naturally nasty.]

In the second scene (the second movement in Mr. McCartney’s piece), the ocean people arrive at the ‘grand hall of Dance’ and have a ball, with entertainment provided by exotic dancers (no, not that kind of exotic dancer) apparently from other earth tribes. But as the scene ends, King Terra and Scala, who have conspired together (King Terra because he wants Princess Honorata for himself; Scala because she’s, well, naturally nasty), kidnap Princess Honorata. The third movement begins with the Princess imprisoned. Prince Stone tries to rescue her, but fails. However, he and the Princess convince Scala that she’s made a really bad mistake. Scala repents, sees that Honorata and Stone (next TV season’s police drama series?) really love each other, and frees them. In the last scene (the last movement), Scala fights off King Terra and the Terrables by creating a storm that kills them, but the storm kills her as well. Princess Honorata and Prince Stone return to the ocean kingdom, and live happily ever after, with Scala’s spirit watching over them.

For the first few minutes it looked as if “Ocean’s Kingdom” was going to be a classic marriage of music and ballet, but “Ocean’s Kingdom” the ballet lost its artistic cohesion halfway through the first movement. The ballet opened to an underwater scene, essentially blue costumes bathed in bluish light. I found the costumes, created by Stella McCartney, to be a delightful combination of lovely and cute. But the movement quality became repetitious rather quickly (unlike the music). The water maidens, for example, seemed to repeat the same arm movements – arms extended and alternately flowing up and down, perhaps intended to be the equivalent of treading water – whenever they framed the action.

The earth people would have to move differently from the ocean people. But did they have to look like Native Americans (with war paint/tattoos) doing a war dance, with a leader sporting a Mohawk and dancing like an antelope? Perhaps so – this is a ‘fairy tale, and exaggerated styles go with the territory. But based on first viewing, to this viewer it went too far – particularly with the costumes. The lead entertainer (Daniel Ulbricht) and his cohorts were outfitted in brightly colored tie-dyed uniforms that looked a little late 60s San Francisco, and a little Ringling Brothers. Worse, the characters identified as “Drunken Lords,” wore what might be described as multi-patterned zoot suits, and moved like inebriated hulks. I liked the “Exotic Couple” (beautifully danced by Megan LeCrone and Craig Hall), but the choreography looked like it had been imported from a different ballet, and the bright yellow unitards made the couple look like oversized canaries. [Perhaps these ‘entertainers’ were supposed to be analogous to character dancers in classic Romantic ballets (and the repetitious corps movement in the First Movement to be analogous to the way the corps in a Romantic ballet frames the action). If so, it didn’t work.]

The glue that holds “Ocean’s Kingdom” together is the relationship between Princess Honorata and Prince Stone. Each Movement included at least one duet between them; maybe two (I lost count). But except for the initial duet, each of them seemed to be choreographed with similar movement quality and danced at the same moderate decibel level. That is, there was growing love, but not enough of it; and there was passion, but not enough of it, and there was intensity, but very little of it. Had the interaction worked, the ballet would have worked.

All this being said, the ballet is not without commendable scenes. In particular, the opening scene in the Third Movement is stunning. The prison bars behind which Honorata is confined consist of streaming bars of light, which can easily (but no less dramatically) be penetrated as the scene develops. [Kudos to Mark Stanley for his usual brilliant lighting, in this scene and throughout the piece.] Though a bit too realistic-looking, the scene of the moon slowly rising behind the lovers at the beginning of the Fourth Movement is striking. [It could also have led one to believe that the action took place on some distant planet rather than on earth. The program notes describe King Terra and his companions as “intruders from an earthly kingdom,” and there is no hint that the action might be taking place in some other part of the universe. But this scene, coupled with the ‘red sky’ that bathed the Terra tribe at the beginning of the Second Movement and the over-the-top costumes, might support an interpretation, and a modification to the program notes, to expand the geographic parameters of the story to ‘any planet’.]

As Princess Honorata and Prince Stone, Sara Mearns and Robert Fairchild danced beautifully together, and looked great, as they always do, but they appeared more restrained by the choreography than they should have been. Amar Ramasar’s King Tetra was an appropriately aggressive and vigorous king of the earth people. But Georgina Pazcoguin as Scala had the most acting to do, and even though the character changes allegiances and personality traits much too quickly, and is somewhat Disneyesque, she was the most dynamic dancer/actor in the piece.

If future tweaking is considered, which often occurs following a ballet’s premiere (and is not an unknown development in NYCB’s history), some time spent examining the relationship between King Terra and Prince Stone might be helpful (as presented now; older and younger brothers are independent characters who seem to have no relationship with each other beyond what is matter-of-factly stated in the story’s synopsis). Was there some history of jealousy between them? Did Stone confront his brother about his interest in or abduction of Honorata? Similarly, some explanation for Scala’s actions could be explored choreographically. Why did she betray Honorata? Did she harbor some resentment against King Ocean? .Exploring these aspects of the story would add texture to the piece, and the music allows for choreographing such replacement scenes to the existing score (e.g,, by replacing one of the tribal dances, or one of the love duets, or allowing the conflicting emotions to span both musical expressions when the score moves from one such expression to the other).

First performances can be deceiving on many levels – the company may not have settled into it, for example, or my physical position in the theater might have skewed the way the ballet presented. Perhaps it just takes some getting used to. Regardless, “Ocean’s Kingdom” is worth seeing, even if you may not yet be able to see the music, to hear the first of what may hopefully be many ballet scores by Sir Paul McCartney.

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