Magazine article The New Yorker

Come Together

Magazine article The New Yorker

Come Together

Article excerpt

New York City Ballet is running a deficit of about five million dollars, on an operating budget of sixty million, and, as young people brought up on YouTube and Facebook come to rely less on live performance, and high culture, the company's administrators fear that they may see more empty seats. To reverse the trend, N.Y.C.B. has been carrying on a huge audience-development program. This now includes a wonderfully generous discount-ticket plan. (Students can go online and reserve seats for most nights that week--no last-minute rush--at fifteen dollars apiece.) Meanwhile, the evenings have been shortened. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, there is usually only one intermission, and from Tuesdays through Thursdays the curtain is at seven-thirty, not eight. You can go to the ballet and still get a good night's sleep. Plus, the house, which used to open half an hour before the curtain, is now open an hour in advance, so that ticket buyers can come and relax and have a drink.

The company has tried to make the shows easier to attend in another sense as well. Ballet, more than any other performing art (even opera), intimidates people. To solve that problem, today's City Ballet offers orientations without end. The programs contain little explanatory essays. The troupe's music director, Faycal Karoui, gives pre-performance talks on the scores. Other curtain talks have been given by the dancers--most often, it seems to me, male ones, presumably to combat the idea that ballet is a girlie enterprise. There are also workshops, seminars, open rehearsals. Plastered on the theatre walls are huge photographs of the company members in jerseys, with their hair down, laughing and throwing their arms over one another's shoulders. "We're just like you," these photographs say, "only better-looking. Come and see what we're doing."

Sometimes celebrities are hired to create the shows. The Broadway director and choreographer Susan Stroman has been brought in three times since 1999 to make works for the company. But now the company has dipped deeper into the well of popular fame. This season's big new ballet, "Ocean's Kingdom"--which had its premiere last Thursday night, with choreography by Peter Martins, N.Y.C.B.'s artistic director--had a commissioned score by Paul McCartney. If Stroman was tapped in order to lure the Broadway crowd, McCartney was clearly chosen in order to attract just about everyone else, for who doesn't admire this man, who, with his mates, wrote such wonderful songs, and changed music in the twentieth century? John Lennon once got into trouble for saying that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus," but in some quarters they certainly were, and still are. N.Y.C.B.'s bosses were not unmindful of that when they issued the invitation to McCartney. As the company's executive director, Katherine Brown, told the press, "Ocean's Kingdom" was an audience-building project.

What did McCartney feel when he read those words in the newspaper? Maybe nothing. For the past twenty years, he has been dipping his toes into high-art music; he has made oratorios, a symphonic poem. Chances are that he was pleased just to get a call from N.Y.C.B. He had never written music for a ballet before. He did the job gratis, and got his daughter, the fashion designer Stella McCartney, to design the costumes cheap. His statements to the press have been endearingly, if at times comically, humble. He told Jon Pareles, of the Times, that though he wrote the libretto for "Ocean's Kingdom" as well as its music, Peter Martins gave him tips. …

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