Dances at a Gathering ★★★★★
Jacqueline du Pré (1945-87) was an extraordinary cellist, whose interpretation of Elgar’s Cello Concerto has never been bettered. She became one half of a golden couple when she married the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim; but her career was cut short by multiple sclerosis, which forced her to stop performing at 28.
Choreographer Cathy Marston is a specialist in story ballets, whose prolific output includes complex narratives such as Jane Eyre and Victoria, for Northern Ballet.
Add to that the fact that Marston’s mother suffered from multiple sclerosis, and you can see how the choreographer would be attracted to du Pré’s story.
Marston’s The Cellist, her first work for the Royal Opera House’s main stage, is a one-hour distillation of du Pré’s life: her fascination with the sound of the cello when she first heard it as a child, her break from her mother’s over-protectiveness, the golden years of ceaseless touring with her husband, and finally the cruel diminishment of irreversible illness.
Marston’s clever device is to use a dancer to represent the cello. The Instrument, as he is named, is danced by the superlative Marcelino Sambé – the story is told through his eyes. Dressed in wooden tones, Sambé, who’s going from strength to strength as one of the Royal Ballet’s most exciting principals, is loving, watchful, possessive, and brings an erotic undertone to the way he fits his body into The Cellist’s.
Lauren Cuthbertson, with a barely tamed mane of blonde hair, is The Cellist; Matthew Ball The Conductor. Cuthbertson captures du Pré’s joie de vivre, her recklessness: her love pas de deux with Ball is boisterous, passionate, sexual, but strangely unaffecting.
And that is the problem with The Cellist: too much, too fast, nothing given time to sink in – and far too many people on stage. Marston likes to use many characters, but here the characters described as Her Cello Teachers, for example, are only on stage for what feels like seconds and bring nothing to the story; and a beige-clad Chorus of Narrators simply cause confusion as they come on and off to no apparent narrative purpose.
Neither does Hildegard Bechtler’s brutalist set – a dense curved dun-coloured wall topped by a moving neon light (which at the beginning looks not unlike the Nike logo) – help.
Philip Feeney’s score, though, is pleasant enough, its prominent cello accents beautifully played by soloist Hetty Snell.
The evening started on a contrasting note with Jerome Robbins' paean to the joy of dancing, Dances at a Gathering.
The Royal Ballet, Dances at a Gathering, Marianela Nuñez and Alexander Campbell. Photo: © ROH 2020 Bill Cooper
A piece for 10 dancers – and the Royal serves up a sumptuous collection of principals and soloists – Robbins’ 1969 Dances at a Gathering is set to Chopin piano pieces (ably played by Robert Clark).
No set, no props: just 10 warmly lit radiant dancers, the women in flowing pastel dresses, taking to the stage and relishing the opportunity to dance. Robbins insisted there were ‘no plots and no roles’, although the personalities of each dancer are allowed to shine through.
Robbins’ choreography, unforced, flowing, at times like the finest lace, as fleet-footed dancers cross each other’s paths creating dazzling patterns, is a delight. Watching it you feel, in a mysterious way, truly blessed.
The Cellist/Dances at a Gathering will be broadcast live to cinemas on 25 February. Details here
|What||The Royal Ballet, The Cellist/Dances at a Gathering review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
17 Feb 20 – 04 Mar 20, 19:30 Dur.: 2 hours 15 mins inc one interval
|Website||Click here to book|