Ocean’s Kingdom, or Twenty Million Dollars Under the Sea
New York City Ballet
New York, David H. Koch Theater
September 22, 2011
On a really grim night in midtown Manhattan, you can throw yourself into the Hudson, which couldn’t be more toxic than an immersion in Ocean’s Kingdom, the much-ballyhooed collaboration between Peter Martins and Paul and Stella McCartney that premiered at New York City Ballet’s Fall Gala this week. While McCartney pere‘s score is often sweet and lyrical between bouts of wave-roiling filler, and fille‘s costumes are vibrant and colorful when they can be read from the audience, you can’t have a ballet without actual choreography, and, here, Ocean’s Kingdom is sixty minutes of watching the dregs of Martins’ talent slowly circle the drain.
Granted, the ballet’s chained to the boat-anchor of McCartney’s cartoonish plot, that, if more fully realized, might aspire to preciosity, but there are lots of ballets with silly plots, and an important, if unglamorous, part of the art of being a choreographer is knowing how to take the banal and make it appear, if not necessarily the stuff of genius, at least, well, less banal. With an almost aggressive lack of imagination, Martins couches this slight story in even slighter dance — tired underwater cliches leavened with even tireder retreads from his own oeuvre — and takes what might’ve been an amiable bit of fluff and turns it into a pit of mind-numbing dullness: a Peter Martins pastiche of a Peter Martins ballet. I was driven to the mental refuge of imagining how other choreographers might’ve tackled this assignment, and couldn’t think of one whose work I’d want less to see; indeed, the exercise gave me a new-found appreciation of the honest hacks of the ballet world: if ever there were a ballet that cried out for the vision and discernment of a Yuri Grigorovich, this is it.
The gala evening began promisingly enough, with the lobby of the David H. Koch Theater crammed with even more glitterati than usual (“Look, there’s Alec Baldwin!”). I never get tired of seeing City Ballet’s orchestra rise from the pit, so that Faycal Karoui can give one of his “See the Music” presentation. He waxed enthusiastic about various passages of McCartney’s score, describing, then having the orchestra play, a passage with themes subtly shifting between instruments, and giving a first taste of the music’s lush orchestrations (although not, according to the program, actually written by McCartney himself). The happy glow of Karoui’s erudition lasted only until Martins emerged from behind the curtain, displaying his famous dry wit by toasting McCartney not, as was Balanchine’s wont, with vodka, but an ostentatiously poured cuppa tea. That left me with uneasy foreboding, as did the ballet’s absurdly long synopsis, complete with characters sounding like refugees from a game of Candyland.
To make a long story short, Princess Honorata (Sara Mearns) and her father, King Ocean (Christian Tworzyanski), live under the sea, in an octopus’s garden, I mean, underwater kingdom, which is soon invaded by the evil King Terra (Amar Ramasar) and (I swear to God I’m not making this up) his Terra Punks. Terra has designs on the delectable Honorata (who wouldn’t?), but she falls in love with his brother, the handsome Prince Stone (Robert Fairchild). After throwing a party in her honor, Terra absconds with Honorata, abetted by the sinister Scala (Georgina Pazcoguin), who is, for some reason, in charge of Honorata’s handmaidens. Go figure. Eventually love triumphs, the sinister (and apparently magical) Scala repents her ways, and everyone lives happily ever after, except for the baddies, now deceased along with the apparently not-magical-enough Scala. According to the endless PR about the ballet, there’s supposedly some sort of environmentally aware message here, but aside from the obvious — “Ocean, good; Land, bad” — I couldn’t see it.
This being a Peter Martins ballet, along the way we must encounter a leaping and turning Daniel Ulbricht as the Jester, I mean, leader of the party’s Entertainers, along with three drunken jesters, um, Ivans, um, nobles. Does Martins never get tired of this? We also get Megan LeCrone and Craig Hall as a not-terribly-exotic Exotic Couple.
From the beginning, there’s a sad feeling of deja vu to Martins’ choreography. Honorata and her girlfriends show us they’re undersea by bourreing and chasseing on pointe while waving their arms about as if buoyed by the passing current. They do this in lines, in circles and more lines, and more circles. It’s a painfully obvious device the first time we see it; by the hundredth, it’s just painful. Occasionally, a stirring march might impel the undersea citizens to arrange themselves in a processional, stepping downstage in ranked, parallel lines, much as we’ve seen recently in Alexei Ratmansky’s Namouna. Indeed, it was hard to look at Martins’ meagre and repetitive underseaisms (those waving fronds of arms) without thinking wistfully of Ratmansky’s rich, witty undersea imagery in Namouna or The Little Humpbacked Horse. By comparison, Martins’ work had the look of a contractual obligation ballet for which the check had not yet cleared.
Mearns emotes to the heavens, either in joy or despair. (Indeed, the entire cast, professionals all, sell the heck out of every second; they have to.) In her love adagios with Fairchild – all of them – she drapes herself over his shoulder while he twirls them both around, again and again. These could be excerpts from any number of other Martins love duets we’ve seen before, except less imaginative. Indeed, almost everything in the ballet looks like something we’ve seen before from Martins, except paler and fuzzier around the edges. Pazcoguin slinks about a lot, and shows us she’s evil by the smirking sensuality with which she bares her legs, again and again, around and through the slitted draperies of her skirts. Fairchild looks handsome and lovestruck; Ramasar lovestruck and angry. For all the plot’s alleged drama, these characters are little more than one-note cutouts; they move about onstage to conform to the story’s plodding necessities, but there’s little sense of anything within them impelling to act, or react. We don’t know why Scala betrays Honorata, or why she reverses herself and saves her. We don’t particularly care, either. Often the storytelling verges on parody: early on, when Mearns and Fairchild are doing one of their shoulder-draping love duets, Ramasar slinks out of an upstage wing to spy on them, then off; if the McCartneys had seen fit to equip him with a mustache, he could’ve done a dandy job of twirling it while laughing satanically. (It couldn’t have hurt.)
Stella McCartney’s costumes are often fabulous, although sometimes, as in the gorgeous colors of Honorata’s handmaidens, the beauty seems constrained, as if each dancer were modeling part of a collection, and what works presented sequentially on the runway doesn’t work so well presented all at once by a corps de ballet. Less might’ve been more here. It definitely would’ve been in the case of the Entertainers costumes, particularly the riot of color that assaulted us from Ulbricht and his attendant Amazons, and their clownish wigs, like rainbow snowcones dumped on their heads. I did love the black-and-sepia scrimshawish-tattoo patterns decorating Ramasar and his Terra Punks. If only they had a ballet as striking as their adornments; Martins gave them little more interesting than some hard-edged group calisthenics. They were an army of Queequegs with nothing to harpoon but the Great White Elephant in which they’d been trapped.
In other ways, the ballet’s as visually gorgeous as the choreography’s plain. Light projections send rippling water about the stage, or ever-changing backdrops as the story’s locale changes. Honorata’s held prisoner in a cage of light, that would be more impressive if it didn’t remind me so strongly of a similar edifice with which Mr. Freeze captured Batman in the TV shows of my youth.
I don’t have much to say about score. It’s pleasant and unremarkable, with some lovely atmospheric (aquatic?) effects from McCartney (or his orchestrator). Imagine the pretty, but not bright, lovechild of Copland and Shchedrin. It’s just, like the ballet itself, too long, and loses itself in repetition and marking time as it nears its end. It could’ve benefited from some serious tightening up, but who’s going to tell Sir Paul he’s written too much? Indeed, I felt a bit more sympathetic to Martins as the ballet wore on, and it looked as if he was trying to fill too many measures with too little action.
I mentioned making a list of choreographers who’d have done a better job on this ballet than Martins, and finding it included just about everybody. The saddest part of the endeavor is realizing that prominent on that list would be the Martins of thirty, twenty, even ten years ago. Like his work or not (and often I didn’t), it had a cerebral (if not emotional) acuity and sense of purpose that’s painfully absent in Ocean’s Kingdom. However gloriously accoutered, is there a sadder choreographer than one who’s just going through the motions?