New York audiences might be famously jaded but it was hard to ignore the rustle of anticipation at the Lincoln Centre ahead of the debut of Ocean's Kingdom, Paul McCartney's specially commissioned piece for the New York City Ballet.
The company's ballet master, Peter Martins, is well known for his attempts to wed modern music to dance but this was something different. McCartney was heavily involved in every aspect of Ocean's Kingdom – he wrote the music and libretto, had input into the staging and commissioned his daughter, Stella, to design the costumes – and expectations levels were sky high ahead of opening night.
It's a shame then that Ocean's Kingdom turns out to be a disappointment for fans of both McCartney and ballet. The score is perfectly pleasant, with some lilting, delicate string refrains, but it rarely grasps the imagination, and too often sounds more like incidental film music than a full-blooded ballet score.
The libretto meanwhile seems unsure as to whether it wants to be a traditional ballet fairytale or attempt something a little harder edged. Ultimately, this tale of Princess Honorata (Sara Mearns) and the battle for her heart falls uncomfortably between the two, ending up with neither wistful romance nor modern grit.
Adding to the confusion is the under-developed role of Scala. On the surface, this witchy handmaid should be compelling but, while Georgina Pazcoguin dances with gusto, the audience is left unsure of what motivates the character to betray Honorata in the first place and even more confused about why she so swiftly changes her mind.
Yet it is also the case that a different staging might allow McCartney's simple story room to breathe. The elegant Mearns and her dance partner Robert Fairchild do their best to convey young love awakened but Martins is more at home with muscular modern choreography and his oddly static staging appears to consist of little more than Fairchild manipulating Mearns into increasingly uncomfortable contortions.
Nor is the staging helped by Stella McCartney's costumes. The designer apparently worked closely with the dancers to ensure that her clothes didn't hinder movement but the end result is crucially lacking the unifying eye that she is celebrated for in her day job.
Ultimately, Ocean's Kingdom isn't a bad ballet, so much as a slight one.
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