Rachel Straus - Dance Writer

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Juilliard Dance

 
Published: October 4, 2011
Category: review

“Ocean’s Kingdom”: Life Jackets Recommended

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK -- It’s not the silly, star-crossed-lovers plot that insults the intelligence in “Paul McCartney’s Ocean’s Kingdom.” Peter Martins’ athletic yet banal choreography isn’t the main cause of effrontery either. Nor is it the former Beatle’s score (his first for a ballet), although it does closely resemble the soundtrack to an animated feature film sans memorable melodies. No, New York City Ballet’s newest ballet, seen Sept. 27 at Lincoln Center, is odious because of the way it renders its centerpiece, principal dancer Sara Mearns.

She is Honorata, princess of the ocean and dead ringer for a 1940s pinup model. In a baby blue shift, designed by Stella McCartney, Honorata falls in instant love (five minutes into the piece) with Prince Stone (Robert Fairchild), whose black tattoos cover his entire upper body. Why McCartney robes him this way is anyone’s guess. But costuming is only part of the problem.

Mearns, considered the most physically expressive ballet dancer of her generation, is given by Martins, the company’s Ballet Master in Chief, three main modes of moving. She is spun on her toes by her paramour (Fairchild). She is lifted by him as she arches her flexible back. And she is positioned seductively on the floor to implore the Terra Punks (more tattoo-covered men in black) and her scheming handmaiden Scala (Georgina Pazcoguin) to give her freedom from prison, where she has landed for the crime of loving Stone, a boy from above the shore line. Stone breaks her out of prison by magically moving her across beams of light that moments before represented unbreakable bars. With this miraculous moment, an insulted audience member blurted out “Oh come on!” Titters from the rest of us followed.

Then Martin’s breakneck-speed story ballet, clocking in under 45 minutes, moved to its finale. Assembled in Honorata’s underwater realm, the 48-member cast—dressed in zoot suits, candy-cane unitards, Mohawk wigs, tattoo skins and shades of blue—witness the couple’s quickie wedding ceremony.

Martins’ choreography, is as anemic as the plot. Only Scala (Georgina Pazcoqugin) and the male dancers are allowed to fill the space with combinations that, while neither musical nor innovative, are at least dance phrases. Mearns, on the other hand, is given dribbles of gesture and lots of leg extensions. Translated into words, she seems to be saying, “I’m pretty” and “Help me.” In Martins’ “Ocean’s Kingdom,” women in love, like Honorata, get to run, fall into their man’s embrace, and unfold their limbs for the audience to see. Women who are deceptive, like Scala, get to move. They are much more interesting, particularly if the dancer is Pazcoguin.

Increasingly, ballet choreographers are keeping women on the points of their feet for longer spans of time. They aren’t so much dancing as they are being displayed through supported adagio work. The man stands close to the women and uses his hands to turn, lift and balance her on her pointe shoe, so that her free leg can lasso high above her head. In “Ocean’s Kingdom,” Honorata and Prince Stone are mired in this routine. He lifts her above his shoulders; she presents her leg to the theater’s third ring, Fairchild and she are preventing from doing what they do best: dancing like flying eagles and devouring space with a soaring grace.

According to a recent article in The New Yorker by dance writer Joan Acocella, City Ballet is operating with a $5 million deficit. Martins invited McCartney to create a score for a new ballet as a way to attract new audiences to the artform. His logic is fine. What is tragic about “Ocean’s Kingdom” is that it makes ballet dancers look uninteresting and comical. Unfortunately, “Kingdom” wasn’t made for laughs.

Balanchine’s “Union Jack,” on the other hand, is all tongue-in-cheek. Made in 1976, this homage to Great Britain in the year of the American bicentennial is highlighted by Hershey Kay’s drum-roll-dominated arrangements of such traditional British tunes as “God Save the Queen” and “A Hundred Pipers.” Onstage, members of 66 guard regiments — from the Royal Canadian Air Force to the Women’s Royal Naval Service — go through their paces. Then the mood shifts, as principal dancers Megan Fairchild and Andrew Veyette become London music-hall jokesters in “Costermonger Pas de Deux.” Their dancing is suitably tacky and trite. Then the mood shifts again, as 49 dancers, in groups of three to 20, become a dancing Royal Navy.

As he muses over ideas of national identity and military might, Balanchine melds ballet steps with other, more popular forms, such as the jig, the Highland fling, horn pipes and work chants. He accomplishes what Martins set out to do in “Ocean’s Kingdom,” giving audiences a bridge to ballet, a way of perceiving how it connects to and expresses aspects of the western world. Balanchine seems be to saying, “You think ballet culture is weird? Well what about the military?” Martins, in contrast, isn’t making a playful analogy in “Ocean’s Kingdom.” He is trying to make New York City Ballet as commercial as Disney and as culturally bankable as The Beatles. He has failed, on pretty much all counts.

Musical America

 

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