But this was Sir Paul McCartney’s début in the world of ballet, the company was the great Yew York City Ballet, Sir Paul’s famous daughter, designer Stella, was doing costumes, and Peter Martins the choreography. So a lot of red carpet, flash bulbs, happy critics getting a couple of days in New York, famous faces in the audience, and column inches. Most of those inches written after the curtain had come down, were less than favourable.
Most remained content about the musical side of things,
The main problem isn’t Mr. McCartney’s music, which is generic, good-natured, old-fashioned pastiche, with no particular vocabulary of its own, no structural sophistication and no sign of the remarkable gift for melody he demonstrated in his Beatles days. But it’s not a disgrace to the neighbors. I can’t imagine anyone choosing to choreograph it if it weren’t by a hugely famous figure, yet who can blame Mr. McCartney for aspiring to the classical? He’s earned the right to try, and he’s been touchingly modest about it.
said The New York Observer. Tobi Tobias in The Arts Journal added,
… his score for Ocean runs the gamut from movie music to faux-Broadway.
and Apollinaire Scherr for The Financial Times was quite positive,
The score, conducted by Fayçal Karoui at the gala première, may not rate with Tchaikovsky – film composer John Williams would be a better likeness – but McCartney does catch the melancholy otherworldliness of an underwater domain that has appealed to choreographers and their composers almost since ballet’s beginnings.
The Economist blog was quite enthusiastic,
“Ocean’s Kingdom” sometimes played out like a generation clash among its collaborators, but it was Sir Paul’s score—however traditional—that never lost its rhythmic centre or its joyful vitality: harp, flute, violin, percussion, each had moments in the sun.
However Marina Harss, writing for The Faster Times, was certain that McCartney’s score was a fundamental reason for the ballet’s failure:
There is no doubt in my mind that the core of the problem is McCartney’s score… 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.
But no-one appreciated the libretto, also devised by Sir Paul.
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 libretto meanwhile seems unsure as to whether it wants to be a traditional ballet fairytale or attempt something a little harder edged. Ultimately, this tale of Princess Honorata (Sara Mearns) and the battle for her heart falls uncomfortably between the two, ending up with neither wistful romance nor modern grit.
and wasn’t too sure about the costumes either,
Nor is the staging helped by Stella McCartney’s costumes. The designer apparently worked closely with the dancers to ensure that her clothes didn’t hinder movement but the end result is crucially lacking the unifying eye that she is celebrated for in her day job.
The Los Angeles Times thought the same,
Stella McCartney’s slinky blue dresses looked lovely on the water-maidens, but otherwise the costumes simply served to make the water kingdom look like a hipster garden party and the earth people look like a Maori biker gang. At its worst the Lycra-and-plumage outfits and decor called to mind a Vegas revamp of “Cats”.
The chief objection was for the choreography of Peter Martins. Many of his ballets have been poorly received, but as director of the company it seems that he can do as he pleases. Alastair Macaulay in The New York Times tells it as it is:
We can blame the new ballet’s scenario: it’s trite. We can blame the ballet’s costumes, by Mr. McCartney’s daughter, the fashion designer Stella McCartney: they’re intrusive, unflattering and clichéd. But there have been better ballets to much sillier scenarios, and many of the greatest choreographers (above all, George Balanchine, City Ballet’s founder, with Lincoln Kirstein) have sometimes saddled their work with abysmal costumes.
For many people in the audience, it will be enough to say that the choreography was by Mr. Martins. The company’s ballet master in chief since 1983, he has demonstrated more aspects of ballet-making technique than most choreographers will ever learn, and yet for decades now most of his new work has been stale: lacking either felicity of invention or stylistic individuality.
Ouch! The Arts Journal commented,
The choreography is instantly forgettable.
While Scherr said,
By the third delirious duet, I might as well have been trapped in a subway car opposite smooching teenagers, I was so desperate to look at something else.
Only The Huffington Post was slightly enthusiastic,
The show has its high points, but you can count them on one hand — a few snazzy routines by the tattooed earthlings and a drunken number at a ball (the setting of which I know only because I read it in the program), where the stumbling dancers weave in and out of rhythm with a lazy trumpet.
The poor dancers do their best,
There’s an underwater princess (Sara Mearns) and a terrestrial prince (Robert Fairchild) who meet beneath the waves, without benefit of aqualungs, and—just like Romeo and Juliet—they’re off and swimming. Well, no—there’s no simulated swimming in Ocean’s Kingdom, just endless vamping. The lovebirds (lovefish?) engage in four more or less identical love duets—posturings, swoony lifts, facial ecstasy—without a single original moment. Talk of generic! And talking of generic, what about the poor corps, who either wander around the rim of the action, pretending to be interested, or are running on and off the stage, pretending to be part of the plot?
said The New York Observer. But it’s not enough, says The Wall Street Journal,
Though Ms. Mearns and Mr. Fairchild try, they are not natural enough actors to seem more than dancers for whom acting is posturing and brow-knitting. As Scala, Georgina Pazcoguin skulks around and seethes, all but stomping her foot in petulance.
Summing up? The Arts Journal,
Would I recommend this product to a friend, as the Internet so often inquires? Rhetorical question. No need for a reply.
The Californian Literary Review,
But as Ocean’s Kingdom joins a growing pile of choreographic train wrecks, 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?
And the WSJ,
Too bad what we’re left with is not an aqueous presentation that has made ballet’s art and artists swim in the glory of their fluid craft. Instead, NYCB’s McCartney project has slipped down the drain.
Photo: Sara Mearns and Robert Fairchild © Paul Kolnik
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.