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New York City Ballet: Trouble in the Kingdom

Robert Fairchild and Sara Mearns in "Ocean's Kingdom." Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Critics have been ripping into the Paul McCartney/Peter Martins’ ballet, Ocean’s Kingdom, at New York City Ballet, like bears after their first post-hibernation meal. Is it that bad? I found this love triangle ballet pleasant enough and aesthetically bland, like Muzak, although troubling for other reasons (like Muzak). McCartney’s music has its moments, and is uncomplicated and melodic. The choreography—a vacuum—is the most basic and rote of ballet steps, with some heightened macho interest for the Terra Punks, led by Amar Ramasar, but the many duets between stars Sara Mearns (profiled earlier this month by SundayArts) and Robert Fairchild instantly vaporize from the mind after watching, with only their phantom desire and potential for better roles left to linger. Georgina Pascoguin, one of the company’s best actors, made the most of a baddie-with-a-heart-of-gold role, but you could feel Daniel Ulbricht’s abject resignation while sailing and spinning through yet another of a series of gee-whiz solos that have come become a trap for him in his young career.

The costumes by Stella McCartney (Paul’s daughter) contained some sparks in the Maori-evocative geometric tattoo imagery for the male punks, but they clashed conceptually with the half-toga chiffonery of the women. I was impressed by the video design, by S. Katy Tucker, which managed to convey locale without completely overwhelming the stage; in particular, the underwater scenes where the sun pierces the ocean’s surface. And Mark Stanley’s lighting included a highly effective light beam jail cell, exemplary of the medium’s plastic potential.

But I think the hostility against this piece is a reaction to the unrelenting hubris of Martins, who continues to hoard NYCB’s commissioning resources for his own larder, rather than acknowledging that it might be better spent on more talented artists, or in seeking out that talent. NYCB does its share of commissioning outside artists, particularly with the Diamond Project, and it must be thanked for giving voice to both Christopher Wheeldon and Alex Ratmansky, the current leading young choreographers. But the amount that must’ve been spent on Kingdom is soul crushing in light of the end result. Even if it the dollar amounts were low (Paul McCartney reportedly didn’t take a fee), think of all of the personnel’s time and wasted talent in this, the season’s only premiere. And while Martins’ choreography is often irritating because he expects too much of the dancers and they can’t execute his difficult passages, here it feels completely phoned in. And that’s a crime given the top-level skills of the dancers.

To make matters worse, it was paired with Balanchine’s brilliant 1976 paean to the UK, Union Jack, the first bizarrely thrilling 20 minutes of which consist of kilt-clad regiments marching onstage in formation. But the detail of the choreography, the precision with which it’s done, and the cumulative pageantry are emotionally gripping. You feel the sheer power and potential of this great company, even in these tightly held passages, as much as you feel in Ocean’s Kingdom the frittering away of those gifts. That said, in sum the project will likely be considered a fundraising bonanza due to the high-profile pop culture attention and new fans it has garnered. The problem is, NYCB isn’t So You Think You Can Dance.

  • Barb

    Look, those of us who watched Balanchine choreography for years know that Suzanne Farrell should have been the rightful heir to his heritage. While Martins was a fantastic artist in his dancing years, he had no business succeeding Balanchine, which has been obvious for some time.
    Taking the long view, even Balanchine had many failures, or in some instances, works that were of only transitory interest that did not remain in the repertory. NYCB will survive.
    Re: Union Jack
    I’m so glad it was well executed. I dropped my subscription because I became so tired of the sloppy execution of the Balanchine heritage under Martins.

  • kr

    I could not agree with this more. It seems short-term notoriety trumps long-term audience or repertory development. It’s a shame another choreographer didn’t get a crack at this – I would love to see what Alexei Ratmansky would have done.

    The choreography did nothing to showcase the dancers talents. This was most notable with Sara Mearns – her talents are immeasurable and I have never seen her look so bland.

    I will continue to go to NYCB as I love the Balanchine pieces and I appreciate the commitment to new works, but I am becoming increasingly selective in what and who I see there.

  • Carl N Steeg MD

    It’s fascinating to read the constant criticism directed at Peter Martins and at the same time read the commentary extolling the choreographers (Ratmansky, Wheeldon, Bigonzetti, Forsythe, O’Day, and many more) he has featured and nurtured. He instituted the Diamond Project, the American Music Festival, introducing visual art and new compositions to the company. He is responsible for the quality of the wonderful dancers the company presently features. He founded the NY Choreographic Institute which gave Wheeldon his opportunities. Directing a major ballet company is far more than curating a Balanchine museum. Yes, he has had failures, and he will continue to have failures. But kudos to Peter! NYCB remains one of the greatest ballet companies in the world. It remains the “House of Balanchine” as well as a house of innovation.

  • RP

    I hadn’t expected much from McCartney’s music and didn’t get much either. As for Martin’s choreography, I have seen more than enough of it and always found it wanting. I haven’t changed my mind in all the years he has been with the NYCB. Never could understand why he was chosen to succeed Balanchine.

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