Paul McCartney, Beatle And Ballet Composer, Too

The world’s great ballet houses are accustomed to cheers, shouts of “Bravo,” even standing ovations. Rock star-groupie screams? Not so much.

But all bets are off when there’s a Beatle in the house.

So there were genuine screams of adulation at New York City Ballet’s fall gala Thursday, not just at the red-carpet arrivals, but also from some of the designer gown-clad patrons in the theater, who craned their necks to get a good view of the ballet’s composer: Sir Paul himself.

Photo: AP Photo
In this image released by the New York City Ballet, dancers in Paul McCartney’s "Ocean’s Kingdom.

Each season, City Ballet puts on a gala fundraiser, and the aim is always to create a little buzz – with a new work, or an interesting honoree. This year’s gala, featuring McCartney’s Ocean’s Kingdom, surely had more buzz than all past galas combined.

Adding to the usual mix of New York power couples and plain old dance fans (you could tell by the attire who was staying for the gala dinner) were actresses Naomi Watts, Liv Tyler and City Ballet regular Sarah Jessica Parker. And a face not usually seen at the ballet: Steve Van Zandt, guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band.

Also on hand: Paul’s daughter, designer Stella McCartney, who created the costumes.

The ballet, you ask? Oh yes, we’re getting to that. Before it even started, though, the orchestra pit slowly rose to stage level, thanks to the David H. Koch Theater’s nifty hydraulic lift. Conductor Faycal Karoui proceeded to give a brief music lesson explaining parts of McCartney’s score, praising its “beauty, style, energy and wit” and throwing in a few bad Beatle puns (“But before we ‘Let It Be …”’)

City Ballet head (and this ballet’s choreographer) Peter Martins then came on to proffer his marquee guest a toast, not with vodka as his predecessor George Balanchine was wont to do, but, in a nod to McCartney’s provenance, with a cup of tea – poured from a kettle by a hand stretching out from the wings.

McCartney, who sang his heart out to packed Yankee Stadium crowds this summer and, at 69, seems to grow ever busier, has already released four classical albums, beginning with Liverpool Oratorio in 1991.

He had never, though, written a ballet score. With Ocean’s Kingdom (a recording will be released next month), he not only accomplished that but wrote the story and contributed to virtually every aspect of the production, Martins has said. (Apparently Dad made suggestions on Stella’s costumes, too.)

The ballet itself was frothy entertainment, set to pleasing, tuneful, often lovely music – a production likely to attract a broader audience to the ballet, always a good thing. It told a simple – one might say too simple – tale of an undersea kingdom threatened by earthly invaders. A sea princess, Honorata (Sara Mearns), falls in love with one of the invaders, a prince (Robert Fairchild), but their love is forbidden. Heartbreak and conflict ensue, but in the end they are together.

Martins’ choreography was pleasant enough, without being striking or memorable. (One wonders what Christopher Wheeldon or Alexei Ratmansky might have done with it.) Mearns, the emerging star ballerina of the company, was typically affecting as the princess.

Stella McCartney’s costumes were a visual smorgasbord, not unlike a runway show. Many of the female getups had modern halterlike tops, a short front skirt and a long back, like the tail of a sea creature. Most successfully dressed were her underwater maidens, in ensembles that resembled creations from a child’s spinning paint game: Swirls and doodles, combined with polka dots or stripes. Her earth villains looked like they were covered with giant body tattoos.

Photo: AP Photo
Sir Paul McCartney and fiance Nancy Shevell attend the New York City Ballet’s opening night of his "Ocean’s Kingdom."

The audience seemed enthusiastic about the new work, but it was clear what they really wanted to see: the guy in that first-ring seat. At one point, he greeted the crowd by strumming a little air guitar in his chair.

It got one of the biggest cheers of the night.