Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Rule, Britannia! --  Ocean’s Kingdom and Union Jack

By Mary Sheeran
Back when I was growing up in Washington, NJ, my friends and I played that we were The Beatles. We strummed badminton rackets and lip synched to our favorite Fav Four. So, when last February, New York City Ballet announced that it had commissioned a ballet score from Paul McCartney, I was pretty excited. McCartney’s ventures into classical music have not thrilled too many, but they are always interesting, for his music from the mid-1960s and beyond have always leaned on classical and even medieval motifs.
Then, in the next sentence, the company announced that its artistic director, Peter Martins, would do the choreography, and that let any air out of any balloons that might have started up. The company continued to generate excitement with press releases about Paul’s daughter, Stella McCartney, designing the costumes and some stories about how Peter and Paul (sounds almost Biblical) were working together, with Paul doing little step hops to suggest choreography and sketching out the libretto, and Peter waxing about their collaboration. Everyone seemed to be having a lovely time.
Unfortunately, no one outside the walls of the theater expected much except a ballyhooed red carpet, and that is pretty much what we got. Since the mid 1980s, when he succeeded the late George Balanchine, Martins’ dances have refused to catch fire. Some of us keep hoping, alas. Why he chose to create a dance for McCartney’s music is puzzling when there are more talented people around and when real opportunism would be not to lose the opportunity to do something wonderful.
I was flummoxed by Martins’ schizo/cynicism in admitting in advance that the collaboration would produce sold-out houses for Ocean’s Kingdom (that would be the ballet’s title) because of Paul, not because of the ballet, and then following that idea with his expressing the hope that more people would be drawn to the ballet as a result of seeing it.
Well, then, why did he phone in the steps? Did he think no one would notice? (NYCB’s Facebook page ignored the ballet completely with its gushing excitement about laying down the red carpet for the arrival of celebrities at its premiere and preparing for the ball afterwards. Or maybe they think that’s what we really care about.)
Everyone else worked on Ocean’s Kingdom – the McCartneys, the designers, the orchestra, and the dancers. Why couldn’t Martins?

Because he didn’t have to. He was right. The house sold out, and Paul McCartney got a standing ovation because, well, he’s Paul McCartney, but will those “new” people come back to see more? Wasn’t that audience worth working for?
This sloppy, cynical way of doing business irritated me as I watched those hard workers put through their paces. The slickness of the publicity, the opportunism of it all, the “let’s pretend we’re doing something important” as they toss us junk jewelry is disheartening and discouraging in a company that has such a heritage as the repertories of New York City Ballet’s founder George Balanchine and of his co-ballet master Jerome Robbins.
All the reviewers focused their stern gazes on Ocean’s Kingdom, and I’ll get to that eventually, although I guess you have an idea of my opinion. But first things first, and for this performance, Balanchine comes first.
Fortunately, Ocean’s Kingdom was presented on a bill with Union Jack, George Balanchine’s bicentennial tribute to the United Kingdom. It’s one of his crowd pleasers and brings the whole company dressed in colorful kilts stepping out on stage to a steady drumbeat. As the dancers keep processing out from a sort of London Bridge-type gate, they fill the stage with color and life. It’s simple but magnificent stagecraft, and a gasp-inducing sequence.
Once the clans break rank, they dance to various folk songs like the “Keel Row” or “Colonel Bogey’s March.” The audience, already floored, is easily captivated by the variations and then wrought up again with Wendy Whelan and her Amazons in the McDonald of Sleat section. It’s another drum-only sequence, with the women kicking up their legs and stabbing the floor with their toes. It’s a showstopper, the sort of thing that encourages cheers and happy hoots.
Balanchine drew on a mighty library of the history he was part of – Russian ballet, Diaghilev, Hollywood, Broadway, Stravinsky, westerns, a passion for Tchaikovskian melody, and a capacity for both minimalism and DeMille type showmanship. If I once thought that his more popular ballets like Union Jack were distilled through a Russian sensibility, this past Tuesday, I thought how much more “American” the dances looked than I remembered. After almost 30 years, Balanchine ballets have come home to American bodies. They’re us now.
The exception to this in Union Jack is the Costermonger Pas de Deux. Most of us haven’t the foggiest notion of what a costermonger is, and the vaudeville-like style is foreign to everyone in the room, including Tuesday’s cast of Andrew Veyette and Megan Fairchild. These two were just swell, but they weren’t aware of all the jokes they could sell. Balanchine knew costermongers well enough and the humor of the British music hall.  I would know that just by remembering the dancers performing this when he was still alive. Back in the day, children, this was Patricia McBride’s role, and she sold the thing to Row K in the Fourth Ring, where I used to sit. She showed me what a costermonger was. And along with her partner Jean Pierre Bonnefous and later Mikhail Baryshnikov, the section was laugh aloud funny and devilishly sly. On Tuesday, Veyette and Fairchild danced the steps and had fun with them, and so did we, but the reason for this segment’s existence, being the slot in the program where the company is changing clothes, was more obvious than it needed to be. The Costermonger Pas de Deux should be more than a utilitarian section.
I could (tactlessly) say the same of Wendy Whelan’s turn in the marvelous McDonald of Sleat segment. Children, when Karin von Aroldingen led her Amazons through the drum roll, it was with noncommitatal expressions that added to the women’s power and sent chills down our backs. They were Balanchine’s female army – the ones you see in Symphony in Three Movements or his Tchaikovsky Suite #3. On Tuesday, I was startled to see some of those Amazons smiling. The steps are there, and the power is still there, but not the understanding behind them.
It’s not just that “they don’t dance the way they used to” – they’re not supposed to. But if you subtract something from the equation, you should add something, and while the actual dance is done brilliantly, the motivation is missing. If they don’t know why they’re there except for steps, why is the audience there? Yes, the dances have become “American,” and we feel at home in them, but they still require the original motivation to make them resonate.
Oh, why am I so picky? It’s Union Jack! What’s wrong with me? It was lovely to see Maria Kowroski saucily leading the WRENS and the RCAF. I got to give a little more applause to the retiring Charles Askegard. And it’s always a breath catching moment when the company signals “God save the Queen” in semaphore code as the orchestra plays “Rule, Brittania!,” the cannon blasts, and the curtain comes down. Union Jack is just so much fun.
As for Ocean’s Kingdom, that was well danced, too, but it was disheartening to watch. There wasn’t any choreography, just steps here and steps there, none of which related to much of the music or story, except for what the music and the talents of the dancers could contribute. Yes, indeed, Peter Martins phoned in the steps after barely skimming through the score. His failure hampers the music, some glorious scenery by Perry Silvey and projections by S. Katy Tucker, and the imaginative, intelligent costumes by Stella McCartney. The piece was helped by the quality of the dancers Martins selected to get his ballet through (for him, apparently) this cynically viewed media event (the dancers being the glorious Sara Mearns, Robert Fairchild, Amar Ramasar, and Georgina Pazcoguin, who created dimensional characters with little to go on. Daniel Ulbricht could have been given more to do.)
McCartney’s music is pretty and, if two-dimensional, enjoyable enough. It certainly told the story. When dancers enter, the music tells you who they are, and if you close your eyes, you can imagine more than you can see in the steps. His libretto admittedly lacked logic, but this is, after all, a medium where swans turn into maidens and nutcrackers battle mice. Even so, the names of the characters alone could make you giggle. Warring families and star crossed lovers wander all over the arts, but this plot was a sad imitation. You see, there were these two kingdoms, one underwater and one of earth. King Terra of the earthly kingdom (I’ll bet you guessed that) arrives in the underwater kingdom (there is no underwater equipment in the ballet and no, I don’t know how people moved from one kingdom to another, but they did). Prince Stone, Terra’s younger brother, falls in love with King Ocean’s daughter, Princess Honorata, but their love is threatened by Terra’s own desire for her. With the help of one of Honorata’s handmaidens, Scala, the princess is abducted by Terra and his henchmen.
Even allowing for the triteness of some ballet and opera stories, this one had many holes were not as easily discerned when NYCB’s excellent dancers took to it. I don’t know what motivated Scala to keep changing her mind, but you could overlook that with Pazcoguin’s strong performance, and what was the point of kidnapping Honorata (the wonderful Sara Mearns)? Why not send her some water lilies? If you secretly desire a princess, why do you put her in prison? But Mearns' performance in the prison (a glorious projection of blue pillars by the way) was breathtaking. The dancers deserved better, though, than a story that resembles a Popeye cartoon with Bluto and Popeye fighting over Olive Oyl. But the dancers found  genuine feeling to be danced, and there was genuine feeling in the music, and from the musicians in the orchestra (conducted by the impish Clotilde Otranto).
Martins is an ideal classroom choreographer, creative about steps but not about what to do with them and completely unconcerned about what he shows an audience.  Those days he had promise were the days when he was campaigning for Balanchine’s favor and Balanchine’s job. It’s time we all stopped pretending to take him seriously.
Ocean’s Kingdom. Music and libretto by Paul McCartney; Orchestrated by Andrew Cottee; Choreographed by Peter Martins; Costumes by Stella McCartney; Video & projection design by S. Katy Tucker; Lighting by Mark Stanley; Scenery by Perry Silvey. Featuring: Sara Mearns, Robert Fairchild, Amar Ramasar, Georgiina Pazcoguin, Christian Tworzyanski, Daniel Ulbricht. Premiere: Sept. 22, 2011. Union Jack. Music by Hershy Kay, adapted from traditional British music; Choreographed by George Balanchine; Scenery and costumes by Rouben Ter-Arutunian; Original lighting by Ronald Bates; Lighting by Mark Stanley. Featuring: Joaquin de Luz, Charles Askegard, Abi Stafford, Jared Angle, Janie Taylor, Wendy Whelan, Maria Kowroski, Andrew Veyette, Megan Fairchild, Adam Hendrickson, Sean Suozzi. Premiere: May 13, 1976.
New York City Ballet’s fall season runs through Oct. 9 at Lincoln Center. For information and tickets, go to http://www.nycballet.com/index.html.
Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet, and Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era about a musician discovering that her mother is a healing woman of the Washo tribe. Her CD, Through the Years, is available on CD Baby.

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