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Paul McCartney’s Predictable, Antiquated, Pandering New Ballet

Paul McCartney’s new ballet Ocean’s Kingdom with choreography by Peter Martins is the worst ballet I have seen in years and an all-time low for the New York City Ballet. Here we have—in 2011!—a throwback to an antiquated 19th century form: the romantic story ballet, complete with underwater sea maidens and a silly pantomime story that is impossible to follow, much less care about. Martins, who took over NYCB soon after George Balanchine’s death in 1983, has been working for several decades to unravel modernism and revive this old fairy-tale art. He has given us new productions of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Romeo and Juliet, along with an array of short-story dances by Broadway choreographers such as Susan Stroman, and now—one presumes—this modern story ballet with a new score by an old rock-n-roller. 

Rock-n-roll? I wish. McCartney’s score has nothing to do with the kind of music we love him for. Ocean’s Kingdom is a throwback too: predictable program-music, complete with oceanic waves of sound, crashing storms of piano-bar emotion and tinkling intimations of fate. The choreography is worse still: an empty spectacle in a faux-court style with lots of pompous parading about; the steps are simple and bland; and the rest is vague gesturing and endless tiresome divertissements. About the costumes, by McCartney’s daughter Stella, the less said the better. They are a pastiche of styles from 1960s on—psychedelic, Mohawk, and leather—and they are ugly, cumbersome, and tasteless. It is all a crashing bore. 

What inspired this unfortunate artistic venture? The idea obviously—too obviously—was to ride Paul McCartney’s celebrity status all the way to the box office. Ballet companies everywhere are fretting about how to bring in young audiences, open the doors of high art to popular culture, and plug classical ballet, music, and opera into the social media network in an effort to reach a twitter-generation smitten with celebrity. McCartney may be nearly 70 but he still sells out stadiums and has managed to bring himself and his sound into the brave new world of today’s youth.

When I went to Ocean’s Kingdom at the Koch Theater, however, there were no screaming crowds, no queues for tickets, no heartthrob standing ovations, only blasé applause. Partly, the whole thing was an astonishing miscalculation: To work commercial magic, a celebrity must be seen and touched and, except for opening night, McCartney was not there. Sure, his participation ensured a media splash, but that ended with a cold shower of scathing reviews. The result? NYCB has yet another vapid production in its repertory, guaranteed to sour audiences for years to come.  

It doesn’t have to be this way. Compare Ocean’s Kingdom to the season openers across the plaza at the Metropolitan Opera, or across the bridge at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. At the Met this week Peter Gelb presented a new production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, starring the superb Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in a gorgeous new production directed by David McVicar. Forget McCartney: It was Netrebko, McVicar, and Donizetti who were pulling in the crowds. There were queues to get into the Met, queues to watch the show on huge HD screens set up in the Lincoln Center plaza and at Times Square, and no doubt there will be queues when the production is beamed to movie theaters across the country. Not everything Peter Gelb does is as good as this Anna Bolena, but he has made the Metropolitan Opera an exciting artistic destination with serious—and seriously entertaining—productions.  

The Brooklyn Academy of Music opened with Atys, a seventeenth century opera by Jean-Baptiste Lully directed by Jean-Marie Villégier with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. This is not a new production, but it is so beautiful and so profoundly moving that it merits revival. Audiences clearly thought so too: There were long queues here too, along with a sold-out house and deservedly warm ovations. Moreover, and ironically, this four-hour long seventeenth century opera—which includes fine dancing far more demanding and original than anything in Ocean’s Kingdom—looks and sounds contemporary in ways that McCartney’s new score or Martins’ new choreography simply do not.  

The bottom line is the same as it has always been: If you want to sell the house, offer great art. Audiences don’t want to be pandered to; they want to be entertained.

Jennifer Homans is the dance critic for The New Republic and author of Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet.