It's All "Tutu" Much  



Report by Tom Frangione and Lisa Murray “the K”

Paul McCartney's first ever endeavor to the world of ballet, "Ocean's Kingdom" had its world premiere at the David H. Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center in New York on Thursday, September 22nd. The performance was the centerpiece of the opening night gala for the New York City Ballet's 2011-12 season. Subsequent performances will be presented September 24-25-27-29, and January 19-21-24-27-29. Tickets for the premiere performance were initially made available only as part of season subscription packages and to patrons of the (very expensive) opening night gala. The general public sale started August 15th, with an American Express presale a week earlier. Tickets sold via the general public sale were for tickets in the uppermost tier only (we were fortunate to be in the front row center of the upper tier, providing a great view not only of the dance, but the orchestra pit as well, not to mention the composers box where you-know-who would be sitting) . For McCartney’s fans in attendance, it may have been more “clap your hands” than “rattle your jewelry” territory, but was no less exciting.

The “Beatle Press” was out in full throttle – in addition to Beatle Brunch, spotted in the gallery were author Bruce Spizer, Rick Glover from Beatlefan magazine, National Examiner’s Charles Rosenay (along with Good Day Sunshine magazine alumni Bill Last, Joel Glazier & Mike Streeto), Ken Michaels from the Fab Fourum, Mark & Carol Lapidos from the Fest for Beatles Fans, and of course renowned McCartney photographer and friend of the Brunch, Bob Gannon.

As expected it was a star-studded affair, with (among others) Jon Bon Jovi, Mickey Dolenz, Little Steven, Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Neil Sedaka, Lorne Michaels, Sarah Jessica Parker and Liv Tyler gracing the red carpet. At around 7:15, Paul’s daughter Stella (who did the costuming for the show) arrived as did his son James. A few minutes later, just prior to the scheduled 7:30 curtain, the evening’s celebrated composer arrived with his fiancée Nancy Shevell, who was absolutely stunning in her backless evening dress. As Paul arrived at the composer’s box amidst the VIP well-wishers, the crowd immediately sensed his presence, causing palpable excitement (and many a strained neck) in the normally reserved atmosphere of the hall.

At around 7:40 (prior to the actual performance), Conductor Faycal Karoui appeared on the orchestra riser to welcome one and all, offering special thanks to Sir Paul, garnering thunderous applause. He proceeded to give a “Classical Music 101” demonstration to the decidedly “pop” crowd. It was handled with great dignity and not at all as condescending as it could have easily been misconstrued and fallen victim to. Demonstrations of how certain emotions translated between pop composition and orchestral interpretation were presented; for example, feelings of loneliness or isolation were represented by solo (rather than ensemble) passages. Similar demonstrations focused on humor, urgency, mimicry and the like. Actual passages from “Ocean’s Kingdom” were used throughout, serving as great reference points throughout the ensuing performance. Karoui was entertaining, reverent and masterful throughout, leading the 70 piece orchestra.

Next up was McCartney’s partner in the work, Choreographer Peter Martins, whom we had the pleasure of meeting prior to the show at one of our very favorite NYC eateries, where he appeared to be putting the final touches on some welcoming remarks. His speech was brief and humorous, offering a bit of history on the NYC Ballet and its founder, George Balanchine, whom he noted, would traditionally toast the visiting composers while raising a glass of vodka. He revealed a “surprise” in Paul’s honor, breaking tradition and raising a cup of tea to mark the occasion, much to the delight of the audience.

At the top of the 8:00 hour, the performance began in earnest. The four movement work ran right about an hour, as it will be presented on the forthcoming soundtrack release next month (note: for those pre-ordering through, a bonus download of this evenings live performance will be a value added bonus). As reported previously, the US release will be on McCartney's current label, Hear Music, while the UK release will be on Decca, the label that famously rejected the Beatles in 1962.

The costuming, by Paul’s daughter the famed designer Stella McCartney, was a bit “edgy” by NYC Ballet company standards, owing much to the use of body art and recalling designs used in Cirque Du Soleil’s Beatles production, LOVE.

Rooted in contemporary ballet style, and in carrying on founder Balanchine’s tradition, Martins’ choreographic style meant some sections appeared to be recurring to the point of repetitiveness at times. To the trained ballet eye, the choreography seemed restrained given the admittedly new musical territory explored in the work. That said, the technical and artistic execution was at the Company’s usual renowned standards of excellence.

Musically, the four movements of the piece - "Ocean's Kingdom", "Hall of Dance", "Imprisonment" and "Moonrise" – convey the tale of a love story within an underwater world whose people are threatened by the humans of Earth. Movement 1, which was a bit cluttered musically, is where the principal characters meet and fall in love. Movement 2 is much more cohesive, with strong celebratory melodies. Perhaps bizarrely, the opening measures (from about 0:20 in, and running about a minute) recall – in rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic structure – Paul’s song “Heather” from 2001’s “Driving Rain” album (go ahead, give it a listen). Insert your gold-digger joke here, but that song contained what was easily the album’s richest melody and vocal harmony texture.

Movement 3, as can be construed from its title, is the darkest passage, and in Movement 4 – well, you guessed it - love triumphs in the end as the music resolves in due course. The scenery changes (from earth to ocean) in the final movement were most impressive. Included were images as used on the forthcoming album (CD) cover, which appearing at first glance to suggest a city skyline in an underwater setting; in fact, the contours represent a digital readout of the notes from the musical score.

The finale was met with rousing applause, and a sustained standing ovation for the cast, orchestra, choreographer and designer, but really kicked into high gear (of course) when Paul came on to take a bow and the standard curtain calls.

As the evening’s gala events would continue on for VIP’s and Lincoln Center patrons, the celebratory atmosphere was sustained for the Beatles fans in attendance, who snapped up the commemorative t-shirts ($30), posters ($10) and postcards ($1). On the issue of swag, the traditional “Playbill” was of course distributed to all in attendance, with the “Ocean’s Kingdom” centerpiece duly inserted in the center and artwork on the cover, and featuring an informative article about the project by Hollywood Reporter & NY Times contributor David Rooney. For the premiere, a commemorative hardback tri-fold slipcase was issued to house the Playbill as well. As an added surprise, all guests were given an additional full-color program on the way out, detailing the show’s history, with notes from Sir Paul and boasting loads of rehearsal and backstage photos. A very nice touch indeed.

“Ocean’s Kingdom” joins Paul’s previous classical works not only as intriguing sidebars to his standard catalog, but as an example of how pop melodies, harmonies and rhythms can coexist peacefully – and rewardingly – in typically classical environs. There’s no vocal or choral component to “Ocean’s Kingdom” (it was written for ballet, after all), so it’s closer to his previous “Working Classical” than, say, “Liverpool Oratorio”.

As the Beatles turned generations of folks reading this report on to the likes of Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly, Choreographer Martins hopes Sir Paul’s name and involvement will encourage new audiences to discover ballet, while emphasizing the project came about for creative and artistic inspiration, and not commercial opportunity.

“Everbody gonna dance tonight” … indeed!

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