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Paul McCartney's ballet 'Ocean's Kingdom' debuts in New York

September 23, 2011 | 10:59 am

  Taking bows at "Ocean's Kingdom" were NYCB ballet master in chief Peter Martins, Paul McCartney and NYCB principal dancer Sara Mearns.
The women are older and more elegantly dressed — but they scream just as loud.

It's been 47 years since Paul McCartney first came to New York and was greeted by wailing female fans at JFK airport but at Lincoln Center on Thursday night, as the 69-year old former Beatle jauntily walked down the red carpet to attend the world premiere of his ballet, "Ocean's Kingdom," the high-pitched screams continued, this time echoing through the stately, high-culture courtyard. 

Reaching the doors of New York City Ballet's theater, McCartney waved to his fans, shook the hand of an NYPD officer and bounded inside with his entourage.

With four classical albums under his belt (“Ocean’s Kingdom,” set for release in two weeks, will be his fifth) McCartney is indeed a composer as well as a rock legend — and if you don't take my word for it, a 1999 BBC poll ranked Sir Paul the No. 1 composer of the millennium, with Mozart and Bach right behind him. 

When he took his seat in the center box the music began.  As the orchestra played, the whole band and conductor started rising from the pit on a mechanical platform, like an organ before a silent film.  Once fully in view, the maestro, Fayçal Karoui, turned around and delivered a nearly 30-minute introduction (billed as a "unique exploration") accompanied with excerpts from McCartney's score.  The effect was deadening.  Imagine a waiter at French Laundry pulling up a chair and sitting down at your table, then describing in oozing detail the wonderful dinner you're about to be served.

The black-tie audience -- including Sarah Jessica Parker, Ralph Lauren, Lorne Michaels, Liv Tyler, Naomi Watts, Alicia Keys, Jon Bon Jovi and Steve Buscemi -- patiently waited until Karoui's music appreciation class — and bad Beatle-themed puns — ended, then the new ballet, with choreography by New York City Ballet head Peter Martins and costumes by McCartney's daughter, Stella, finally began.

NYCB dancers Amar Ramasar, Sara Mearns, Robert Fairchild and Georgina Pazcoguin
"Ocean's Kingdom" is an old-fashioned story-ballet that in four movements tells of a watery princess and earthly prince.  The scenario is McCartney's and it is standard storybook stuff: a grand ball, love at first site, abduction, and of course, marriage.  All of this fits well with the score, which at its best sounds like competent Hollywood soundtrack to fairy-tale themed film. Unlike his first major classical work, 1991's "Liverpool Oratorio" which had traces of minimalism and modernity, "Ocean's Kingdom" (despite being composed with the help of a computer) feels like court entertainment from decades past.

You might not want to listen to the whole thing on your iPod, but that's the case with a number of classic ballets.  Give McCartney credit — his music does manage to convey the setting and underscore the action. If only the action was worth watching.  Peter Martins' dances are not just forgettable, they're boring. There's running around in circles and cheerleader-style symmetry that looks as if the choreographer were setting the piece on student dancers — not one of the finest companies in the world.  Besides a brief acrobatic duet by Megan LeCrone and Craig Hall, there was nothing that showcased the artistry of the City Ballet principals or corps.

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."

What was dearly missing from the evening was a sense of humor. Historically, straight-forward or nostalgic settings of Beatles music have not fared well (see: the musical "Rain" or the film "Across the Universe") because the magic behind the Fab Four's sound was its youthful insouciance.  Humor and a sense of not taking things seriously was what director Richard Lester brought to films like "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help."  Had City Ballet partnered McCartney with a choreographer in that vein, one who likes to tweak tradition — Mark Morris or Alex Ratmansky, say — rather than embalm it, "Ocean's Kingdom" might have been a fun diversion, or even more.

When he took his bow at curtain calls, McCartney waved and grooved a little in his wiggly-jiggly way and then strummed a few notes on an imaginary guitar.  It was the freshest movement on the stage all night.  And naturally, it earned the loudest screams.

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-- James C. Taylor, from New York

Photos, from top: Taking bows at "Ocean's Kingdom" were NYCB ballet master in chief Peter Martins, Paul McCartney and NYCB principal dancer Sara Mearns.  Credit:  Paul Kolnik.

NYCB dancers Amar Ramasar, Sara Mearns, Robert Fairchild and Georgina Pazcoguin.  Credit:  Paul Kolnik.

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