The cows in Stella Gibbons’s immortal Cold Comfort Farm are named Graceless, Aimless, Feckless and Pointless, and that more or less is the verdict on Ocean’s Kingdom, the wildly hyped and wildly uninteresting collaboration between Peter Martins and Paul McCartney. (Sorry—Sir Paul McCartney; no P.R. release or press mention omits the knighthood.) If only Gibbons had given us a fifth cow: Endless.
The main problem isn’t Mr. McCartney’s music, which is generic, good-natured, old-fashioned pastiche, with no particular vocabulary of its own, no structural sophistication and no sign of the remarkable gift for melody he demonstrated in his Beatles days. But it’s not a disgrace to the neighbors. I can’t imagine anyone choosing to choreograph it if it weren’t by a hugely famous figure, yet who can blame Mr. McCartney for aspiring to the classical? He’s earned the right to try, and he’s been touchingly modest about it.
But whereas he may be grateful to City Ballet for giving him this chance, it’s hard to see Peter Martins as anything but opportunistic in giving it to him. And Mr. Martins has been duly penalized: the McCartney score and libretto have led him to one of the weakest choreographic performances of his long career. He can be so much better than this that I can only assume he was depressed by having to deal with music clearly uncongenial to his talents, and a particularly vapid and clichéd libretto. Mr. Martins used to be good at telling a story through dance. This story is so poorly, so confusingly, told that you can’t follow it without the printed synopsis.
There’s an underwater princess (Sara Mearns) and a terrestrial prince (Robert Fairchild) who meet beneath the waves, without benefit of aqualungs, and—just like Romeo and Juliet—they’re off and swimming. Well, no—there’s no simulated swimming in Ocean’s Kingdom, just endless vamping. The lovebirds (lovefish?) engage in four more or less identical love duets—posturings, swoony lifts, facial ecstasy—without a single original moment. Talk of generic! And talking of generic, what about the poor corps, who either wander around the rim of the action, pretending to be interested, or are running on and off the stage, pretending to be part of the plot?
Prince Stone’s wicked brother, King Terra (Amar Ramasar), wants Honorata for himself, abetted by the wicked (until she mysteriously turns good) Scala. In the second scene everyone goes topside for a divertissement of no freshness or excitement—even the usually irrepressible Daniel Ulbricht is somewhat muted in his standard routine of jumps and splits. The humor element: three Drunken Lords. Terra abducts and imprisons Honorata; Scala (the highly charged Georgina Pazcoguin, the only dancer who comes off well in this farrago) rescues her from her prison (cleverly suggested by columns of white light); a quick combat, and the baddies are defeated, the lovers reunited. Scala, according to the synopsis, has been killed holding off the baddies, but I missed it (I must have blinked). A big moon rises in the final scene. That’s it. Oh, yes—there are the costumes, by Sir Paul’s daughter, Stella, the highly successful fashioner designer. Alas, no one has explained to her that fashion is different from ballet—her costumes are particularly destructive to a dancer’s line, and generally klutzy. Hint: horizontal stripes aren’t usually flattering.
Ocean’s Kingdom is a fairy story with no subtext, no resonance—it’s not about anything except its water-logged plot. And there’s absolutely no characterization, except for what Ms. Pazcoguin brings on her own to Scala. The superb Sara Mearns has nowhere to put her all-out expressivity; instead, her hair swirls, her dress swirls, she herself is swirled. Good-natured Robert Fairchild, the swirler, is essentially a prop. As for the Water Maidens, the Handmaidens, the Terra Punks and the Courtiers, like everyone else, they’re utterly at sea.
You have to feel sorry for City Ballet: every one of its recent gimmicks—the drab new version of The Seven Deadly Sins, featuring the miscast and floundering Patti Lupone; the multiballet collaboration with the celebrated architect Santiago Calatrava, whose neophyte stage work mostly undercut rather than enhanced the poor choreographers he was supposedly working for; the empty, vulgar double-bill from Broadway choreographer Susan Stroman—has been an artistic mess. The telling thing about all these expensive fiascoes is not that they failed, but that Mr. Martins has dragged in ballet outsiders to score publicity coups and stimulate sales. But, hardly surprising, these naïve and exploited amateurs haven’t known what they were doing. And the audience catches on. There may have been an ovation at the Martins-McCartney gala premiere, but at the other performances to date, the applause has been polite and pro forma; it was Balanchine’s amazing Union Jack that got people excited.
The company’s only keeper from the past few years has been Alexei Ratmansky’s ingenious—and semimarine—Namouna (he managed to duck the Calatrava décor). And the most brilliant and successful City Ballet performances over this season and the last have been the Balanchine abstract “black-and-white” programs: Episodes, Apollo, The Four Temperaments, Agon etc. Broadway stars, fashionable architects, titans of pop turn out to be no substitute for the real thing.
As it happens, the first dance review I wrote for this paper, a dozen years ago, was of the premiere of Peter Martins’s full-evening Swan Lake. It returns regularly, and the audience returns for it. (Swan Lake is invariably a hit; that’s why Balanchine made his one-act version back in 1951.) It’s not an easy ballet to get right—the text is a scramble, and the story lends itself to every kind of misinterpretation and overinterpretation. Yet there it is—the quintessential ballet; you can’t get away from it.
The score, of course, is a glory, and sounding better than ever at the Koch/State Theater since the acoustics have been so vastly improved. (The orchestra was at its best under A.B.T.’s David LaMarche; the company’s musical director, Fayçal Karoui, seems impatient with Tchaikovsky’s high Romanticism.) But by emphasizing the emotional impact of the score, the improved sound only underlines the fatal absence of feeling in the Martins version. He establishes no romantic connection between Odette and Prince Siegfried; there’s no pathos, no high drama, no tragedy, no grandeur. It’s all efficiency and vacuity. Worst is the first act, Siegfried’s supposed birthday celebration: hideous to look at—a pale-vomit Danish-Expressionist set, with streaks, and bilious Day-Glo costumes. It’s all so boring—the interminable corps work; the gratuitous intrusion of adorable children; our attention centered on the maddeningly relentless jack-in-the-box Jester rather than the Prince.
There’s no sense of Siegfried’s restlessness to justify the lure of the Swan music. There’s no profound meeting of souls at the lake when Prince encounters Swan, and no tragic threat to their love, only a ludicrous Von Rotbart getting in the way. The black act is conventional, with a botched climax. Only in the short, final scene does Mr. Martins make something happen—the fluidity of the swan choreography, the heightened feeling of the pas d’action among the principals and the corps are the best things in the ballet, spoiled by the ridiculous antics of the orange-caped Von Rotbart, who disappears in a puddle and creeps offstage, hoping he won’t be seen by the audience. His defeat, though, doesn’t lead to transfiguration. Never mind—the audience thinks it has seen Swan Lake.
This time around I took in two casts. Ashley Bouder’s Odette wasn’t plangent or tragic; instead, she was super-agitated—a very upset bird. Ms. Bouder is many wonderful things, but lyrical isn’t one of them. Her Odile, though, was compelling. She has the speed, the attack, the brilliance, the command. She nailed the notorious fouettés. And in the final scene she found some moving stillness in the midst of all the frenzy.
Ms. Bouder’s compactness is in almost demented contrast to Teresa Reichlen’s great height and hyperextended legs and arms. Ms. Reichlen is cool in contrast to Ms. Bouder’s heat, and although she showed no feeling in the first lake scene, she dominated it. As Odile she’s a nonstarter: She’s a deliberate dancer, without fire or glitter. She’s technically strong, though, and she made it through the fouettés even if they had a tendency to wander.
Did either ballerina animate the Martins ice swan? No, but I’m not sure Pavlova or Fonteyn could have manage to either. As usual, Swan Lake drew crowds, who applauded absolutely everything with equal enthusiasm—except the first entrances of the principal performers. This apparent lack of familiarity with the most famous of all ballets is a bad omen. City Ballet could once count on a discerning and committed congregation to keep it honest. To be fair, though, they did prefer Union Jack to Ocean’s Kingdom.