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David H. Koch Theater
New York, NY
September 22, 2011
Reviewed by Wendy Perron
It’s an uphill battle to create a brand new story ballet that has a real sense of drama. Even with the synopsis printed in the program, the plot can feel arbitrary. But in Ocean’s Kingdom, a collaboration between Peter Martins and Sir Paul McCartney, this battle was almost won by McCartney’s gorgeous, subtly changing, magical music.
On this gala night the music had an advantage over the choreography because we heard sections of it first in the “See the Music” portion of the evening. "See the Music" is an occasional treat when the full orchestra rises up and conductor Fayçal Karoui, who is both charming and educational, talks about the score. He helped us hear how lonely and sad the music is when the lovers get separated, how funny the brass section is for the Drunken Lords, and how driven the 3-3-2 rhythm is for the Terra Punks.
In the actual performance, however, Martins’ choreography didn’t go far enough in those directions. The three Drunken Lords weren’t funny enough (oh if only Jerry Robbins were around to help make that part); the Terra Punks weren’t earthy, complex, or menacing enough; and the minor characters—Entertainers Leader, Exotic Couple, Amazon Women—were all thrown in together to a lighthearted beat, none of them getting their own music.
The opening scene was the most beguiling because it really did feel like being underwater with shimmering rays of sunlight streaming down from above. With the spare drifting of the few dancers who opened the ballet, you felt you’d entered a delicate kingdom. Throughout the work, Perry Silvey’s scenery and S. Katy Tucker’s video designs intrigued with a light-touch cosmic look, filtered through with subtle motion of light and patterns—a look I’ve never quite seen before onstage.
This story (libretto by McCartney) had familiar characters, but with little sense of motivation. There’s the water princess (Odette anyone?); the ardent prince; the jealous, powerful man; the fickle, perhaps evil woman; and a jester who excels at turning and jumping. But it was hard to care about any of the characters or be affected by the dramatic conflicts. Why does Princess Honorata’s head servant Scala betray her? Why does Scala treat the Prince like a pest before she decides to save them? (Perhaps a plot twist could be inserted, like Honorata or Prince Stone mistakenly doing something that slights Scala.)
As I’ve found before, the best part of Martins’ choreography is the partnering. One motif has Honorata coming downstage as though part of an ocean wave, and Prince Stone pulling her back upstage with beautiful, sensual lifts. But their duets never got truly rapturous, nor their separation unbearably sad. And the Terra Punk gang never got too aggressive. Everything was kind of medium.
Sara Mearns was lovely as Honorata; the luscious fluidity of her torso was just right for an underwater princess. Robert Fairchild made a fine prince (what else is new?). Amar Ramasar tightened himself into a knot to play the jealous, vengeful King Terra. The character who had the most transformational role was Scala, played by Georgina Pazcoguin first as severe and later as all loving kindness. She had to be like Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy all in one evening, and she pulled it off with a commanding presence.
The real fun happened both before and after the performance. Peter Martins gave a toast to Sir Paul in the tradition of Balanchine’s toasts to Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, but replaced the vodka glass with a proper cup of tea. Afterward Sir Paul practically skipped onto the stage, so light on his feet as to bring on a brief hallucination of the old Beatles energy. (Maybe rock stars have lifelong springiness the way some dancers do.) As the curtain went down, he leaned over and kissed his daughter Stella, who had designed the classy costumes.
Photos top to bottom: Robert Fairchild and Sara Mearns as Prince Stone and Honorata; Amar Ramasar and Company as King Terra and Terra Punks; curtain call with Peter Martins, Sir Paul McCartney, and Sara Mearns. All photos by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB.