Paul McCartney Ballet Opens at Lincoln Center

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New York City Ballet’s fall season opened to a sellout crowd last night, with the world premiere of Ocean’s Kingdom. Former Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney, wrote the original orchestral score, his first for a ballet. His daughter, acclaimed clothing designer Stella McCartney created the costumes. New York City Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins choreographed the work on City Ballet principal dancers Sara Mearns and Robert Fairchild.

Before the ballet got underway, the audience was treated to a brief lecture from New York City Ballet Music Director Faycal Karoui. He offered an exploration, and explanation, of McCartney’s score for Ocean’s Kingdom, with help from the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Karoui called McCartney a composer of “beauty, style, energy and wit,” and marveled at the former Beatle's "soaring romantic melodies."

The sprawling score moved from jaunty rollicks to dark rhythms that heightened the suspense of the dance. Some parts of the composition made audience members sigh with relief at a phrase’s finish.

In an interview with WQXR’s David Garland, McCartney explained the story is about earth and ocean kingdoms trying to coexist. “There’s a kind of ecological subplot that never gets mentioned anywhere that was always in the back of my mind, which is the purity of the oceans being ruined by these terrible earth people,” McCartney said.  He wrote the score first, plotting the story only after the music was written. McCartney described working with choreographer Peter Martins as a friendly give and take collaboration.

The ballet opens with the princess Honorata (Sara Mearns) and her father King Ocean (Christian Tworzyanski) awash in what appears to be a deep blue ocean. The lovely Honorata, her long blond locks flowing in blue green lights that resemble pools of water, is light on her pointe shoes. Stage lighting from Mark Stanley plays up every shade under the sea, from algae to turquoise. Mearns’ arabesque extensions are solid, and high. Her pique turns, with one leg bent to her standing knee, swim with McCartney’s score. The audience is immersed in a watery plane of existence. Corps de ballet members fill the stage for a fun, underwater party. The willowy costumes from Stella McCartney made the dancers resemble multicolored tropical fish schools, like you might find while snorkeling off the Virgin Islands. 

But this serene H2O party doesn’t last forever. Soon, the earth faction storms the stage. The lights turn a foreboding shade of amber. King Terra (Amar Ramasar) and his younger brother Prince Stone (Robert Fairchild) fly onto the stage with a testosterone-filled band of followers. They aggressively break up this soiree with furious grand jete leaps across the stage. Some of the men do back flips to cut through the ocean crowd. 

The earth costumes are the color of sand and dirt. The dance this faction performs resembles city rush hour traffic – a stark contrast to the flowing bluegreen Oceanites. The earth group delivers an invitation to the Oceanites to attend a grand ball. And that’s when Ocean’s Honorata falls in love with Earth’s Prince Stone. Somehow, you just know trouble is ahead.

Movement II begins with a spectacle of acrobatic dancing. Three drunk lords make their way through the party, and the music clues us in to the comic relief with a few humorous interludes. All the while, the attraction between Stone and Honorata becomes stronger. Their pas de deux brims with passion and urgency. At the end of the dance, Honorata is briskly kidnapped by King Terra. He’s decided he should get the lovely ocean princess for himself. (Why should younger brothers have all the fun?)

Terra’s helped in this abduction by the menacing Scala (Georgina Pazcoguin), dressed in a stunning floor length sheath of dark blue chiffon. Her high extensions accentuate the gown’s fluidity as she slices through the stage.

Movement III opens with Honorata trapped in a spotlight prison. Bright white columns of light cordon her off to stage left. She dances her way through all four corners of her light box, desperate to escape. Scala shows up again, and a torrid three-way battle ensues. The crone realizes she was wrong to turn against her mistress. But the final battle has yet to begin.

Yep, that’s Movement IV. As a giant moon rises on the backdrop, Scala, Honorata and Stone escape into the night. Terra and his aggressive warriors are in fast pursuit. Again, the choreography becomes choppy and discordant. The soldiers spin like machine guns, and fire their legs into the air in a whirl of pirouettes. Some appear as though they’ll never stop spinning, their vegan leather epaulets (Stella McCartney is a lifelong vegetarian who does not use any leather or fur in any of her designs) bouncing as they slice through the air.

Scala conjures up an intense storm that envelops and the earth warriors. Scala too, perishes, to the dismay of the lovers. But their escape succeeds and they are met by the languid forces of the Ocean Kingdom, resplendent in their color wheel of cyan, azure and navy. Green and yellow are also invited to the lovers victory ball. As the festivity subsides, the lovers are left to each other. In a final act of attrition, Scala’s spirit enters stage left as McCartney’s last staccato beat closes the performance.

The near sellout crowd applauded heartily. Ocean’s Kingdom will be performed a handful of times during the fall season, and five times during the winter season. But it’s doubtful whether McCartney himself will show up again, as he did for last night’s opening.