x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Popularity of ballet on the rise

Paul McCartney's first foray into writing music for ballet is just another indication of how the classical dance is capturing contemporary imaginations.

Natalie Portman won an Oscar for her portrayal as Nina Sayers in Black Swan – evidence of ballet's renewed popularity.
Natalie Portman won an Oscar for her portrayal as Nina Sayers in Black Swan – evidence of ballet's renewed popularity.

It's like Blackbird meeting Black Swan.

Paul McCartney, it was revealed last week, has written his first ballet. The orchestral work will premiere in September at the New York City Ballet, whose ballet master in chief, Peter Martins, will choreograph.

Ocean's Kingdom sounds like Romeo and Juliet set in an Octopus's Garden. McCartney told The New York Times the daughter of the ocean king falls in love with the brother of the earth king, he said, and "you'll have to see whether the couple make it. There's all sort of troubles along the way".

He apologised for his weak characterisation of the work: "It's better than I'm making it sound."

We should hope so. And if it's not, it won't be the first time Sir Paul's classical compositions have been found lacking.

Liverpool Oratorio tells the post-war story of the Merseyside city and featured the soprano Kiri Te Kanawa when it premièred at Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral in 1991. When it got to Carnegie Hall, The New York Times critic wrote: "The dominant style is of a euphonically tonal pop ballad: the musical texture is very thin, the counterpoint elementary and many settings awkward. The music, often sweet and simple, is incapable of handling contradictory tensions or of expressing intricacy of character."

Ouch. Sir Paul's other classical works, including Ecce Cor Meum, another oratorio, and Standing Stone, a symphonic "poem", fared no better.

Interest in ballet is perhaps as high now as it has been since Rudolf Nureyev defected to the United States. Natalie Portman snagged an Oscar for her portrayal of a ballerina in the movie Black Swan and performances of The Nutcracker sell out in theatres around the world on an annual basis. "Everyone is crazy about ballet," Rob Daniels, the City Ballet's spokesman told the The New York Times. "Our Swan Lake is the hottest ticket in town right now."

Jennifer Homans's Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet has been on Amazon's Top 100 since it came out in November. In a review of the book last autumn, Toni Bentley, a former ballerina for the City Ballet, wrote Homans had "taken this world where wilis, virgins, sylphs, sleeping princesses, the 'women in white' embody the eternal - the eternally unattainable - and set it into the fabric of world history".

Homans's conclusion, after having traced ballet through Italy, France, Russia and the United States, is that ballet is dead. "Contemporary choreography veers aimlessly from unimaginative imitation to strident innovation" while "today's artists … have been curiously unable to rise to the challenge of their legacy".

Yet they try, by marrying ballet and pop music, a trend now about 10 years old. Twyla Tharp choreographed ballets to the music of Billy Joel, Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra. The Joel and Dylan works were reviewed well; Sinatra not so. Yet, when Jean Grand-Maître, artistic director for the Alberta Ballet in Canada, worked up Joni Mitchell songs into a ballet it was to attract new audiences for his company as much as to create new, quality art. The 2007 show "got us more press than we've ever had in our company history", Grand-Maître told The New York Times. The mash-up was so successful - adding to the company's roster of subscribing balletomanes - that works based on the songs of Elton John and Sarah McLachlan were put in production.

But those are ballets based on existing pop material. It is the rare pop star who composes work for those en pointe.

Elvis Costello wrote two ballets: Nightspot, with Tharp, was panned; but Il Sogno, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, "is the one product of this odd recent trend that's actually worth the staff paper it's written on", wrote the ballet critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Il Sogno (The Dream) is "an expansive, colorful and often striking creation, done with all the imaginative flair and restless precision of Costello's rock efforts".

This month the Wells Theatre in London presents The Most Incredible Thing, on which the Pet Shop Boys collaborated with Javier de Frutos. How this - and McCartney's Ocean's Kingdom - fare at the box office and among critics is … up in the air.