The leisurely existence Paul McCartney imagined for himself when, back in his pre-Beatles youth he wrote "When I'm Sixty- Four," bears scant resemblance to his productive life these days. Instead of mending fuses and digging weeds, as the song says, the music-industry titan is still playing marathon concerts in massive arenas, including two acclaimed Yankee Stadium shows this summer. What's more, he continues to set himself fresh artistic challenges.
He has branched into modern classical music and ambient electronica, poetry and painting, as well as writing a children's book and remaining a committed activist for a number of international causes.
With New York City Ballet's world premiere of Ocean's Kingdom, for which he composed the original score and wrote the libretto, McCartney adds ballet to his ever-expanding list of creative endeavors.
"Like most of the world I grew up a big Beatles fan, so it's an incredible honor for me to be working with him," says NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, who has created the choreography for the new work. "Paul is a great man of melody and his music is very rhythmic. You really want to dance to it."
The seed for the project was planted when Martins met Mc- Cartney at the School of American Ballet's Winter Gala in 2010. Being aware of McCartney's interest in classical music, Martins broached the idea of them one day collaborating on something.
"One conversation led to the next; it was all very spontaneous," says Martins, who has been a significant force in marrying contemporary music with ballet, notably in works choreographed to scores by John Adams, Wynton Marsalis, Christopher Rouse, Charles Wuorinen and even to the hits of Ray Charles.
"I am always interested in new directions that I haven't worked in before," said McCartney when the project was announced. "So I became very excited about the idea. What was interesting was writing music that meant something expressively rather than just writing a song. Trying to write something that expressed an emotion _ so you have fear, love, anger, sadness to play with. I found that exciting and challenging."
That stormy emotional landscape is a fundamental element of every classic fairytale. McCartney draws on that tradition in his original story for Ocean's Kingdom. Forces of good and evil clash as the serenity of an idyllic underwater realm is threatened by adversarial intruders from the earthly world of Terra. Jealousy and betrayal, abduction and imprisonment, liberation and redemption, joy and tragedy all figure in the account of a love that crosses the boundaries between land and sea.
While Martins has gravitated more frequently toward abstract ballets throughout his career, he found the descriptive nature of McCartney's music a persuasive characteristic in developing the work.
"It's a storytelling score, if you will," says Martins. "There has to be a certain amount of mime, but the challenge really is to tell the story through dance, whether it's a dramatic scene or a romantic scene."
He credits both George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins as major influences in teaching him the nuances of movement-based narrative.
"People don't tend to think of Balanchine in terms of being a great storyteller," says Martins. "I disagree. He was probably the best I've ever seen. Nobody tells a story better than Balanchine. It's always clear. It's never over-choreographed. Jerry [Robbins] was a master at storytelling too, so I had two great models in my own house."
There's a pleasing sense of continuity in Martins' choice of romantic leads in Ocean's Kingdom. Both Sara Mearns and Robert Fairchild had their breakthrough roles with the company in story ballets choreographed by Martins, respectively Swan Lake and Romeo + Juliet.
Mearns dances the role of King Ocean's daughter, Princess Honorata, who is innocence and goodness personified, in the manner of old-fashioned fairytale heroines. Fairchild plays the role of Prince Stone, younger brother of the covetous King Terra, ruler of the Earth Kingdom.
"I put Sara and Robbie together because I had never choreographed for the pair of them before. The way Paul described the characters, I thought they would be perfect," says Martins.
"Sara is a very strong technician and she has tremendous charisma onstage," he continues. "She almost doesn't have to do anything and you look at her. The same thing applies to Robbie. Some people are just born to be on a stage."