NEW YORK -- When Paul McCartney took a bow at the opening night gala for "Ocean's Kingdom" last Thursday, the record will show it was the most dramatic moment of the evening. One reviewer noted "a large contingent of ladies screaming like it was 1964"; another wrote "there were cheers and screams" from the A-list crowd just at the mention of McCartney's name. But it wasn't the former Beatle's ballet that set their hearts aflutter.
"Every single person in that theater ... is there for one reason -- not for the ballet, because of Paul," acknowledged Peter Martins, the New York City Ballet's ballet master in chief and the show's choreographer, in a preview for the show.
By the time the matinee performance took the stage Sunday, with McCartney no longer there, it was just another day at the ballet. The house was filled with an older, more seasoned audience, who were there for the ballet, along with a natural curiosity to see how McCartney had fared. Some arrived with grandchildren in tow, dressed in their Sunday best, down to matching outfits for one grandchild and her doll. Another individual rolled in wearing a baseball cap to casually take in that afternoon's double feature ("Union Jack" was up next).
The dress code lacked uniformity, but when the final light dimmed after the fourth act, the crowd showed solidarity in its reaction: polite clapping. A lone cheer or two could be heard, but even those petered out as the leads took their final bows. It was the opposite of the steady, cheering crescendo that etiquette traditionally demands. At that point, no one could keep up the pretense there was much worth cheering for.
"Ocean's Kingdom," McCartney's first ballet, was written and scored by the man himself. It's a love story between two royals from different worlds -- Princess Honorata (Sara Mearns) from the ethereal Ocean kingdom and Prince Stone (Robert Fairchild) from the menacing Earth kingdom. A weak attempt at thwarting their love is the ballet's major plot point. It's a simple story you've heard before in some variation, and it has more than a few plot holes, but those weaknesses alone are not the dealbreaker here -- even the simplest of stories can be made powerful with the right dance routine. It is Martins' passionless choreography that makes the gaps in the plot all too evident.
Each act looks, more or less, like another cycle through the same dance routines. In the most notable motif: the male lead grasps the female lead around the waist from behind and hoists her up against him, as she languishes in his arms. What this is meant to evoke is not clear, as the same move occurs in supposedly happy and sad moments. And that sums up the biggest problem with "Ocean's Kingdom": choreography that confuses a plot in desperate need of clarifying.
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.
While this is his first ballet, Sir Paul has been composing classical music for some time, with four albums so far. "Ocean's Kingdom" is a pleasant addition, and it meets the basic requirements of a ballet score, guiding the emotion and telling the story, inasmuch as there is a story to tell.
McCartney also had a hand in the costumes, commissioning daughter Stella McCartney to design them. The most notable flourish are the tattooed earthlings who sport some pretty stylish coats, clearly the mark of a fashion designer. But often, Stella's outfits err on the side of too costume-y, a distracting look for dances that couldn't meet them in dramatic impact.
As we neared the finale of the 50-minute "Ocean's Kingdom," the drama waned until it flatlined. Once it became apparent that this really was the last, anemic image, many in the audience began hightailing it for the exit before the bows even began.
After all the buildup for McCartney's work, it was disappointing to see one of the world's most esteemed ballet companies pinning its hopes on a man who, for all his talent, previously had zero ballet experience. It was disappointing to watch a ballet and realize the dance itself was overlooked. But in the end, this show won't suffer much for its poor reviews (of which it has many) because people, myself included, will want to see for themselves. Paul McCartney is the ultimate trump card. Had he been in the theater on Sunday afternoon, we would have forgiven everything.