The Cellist, a new ballet by Cathy Marston (contains spoilers)
Cathy Marston has created her first work for the Royal Ballet The Cellist, based on the life of British cellist Jacqueline du Pre, whose career was tragically cut short at the age of 28 due to the effects of multiple sclerosis. In this one-act ballet, Marston provides a series of vignettes, the critical moments in du Pre’s life. Her discovery of the cello as a young child, danced with sparkling exuberance by Emma Lucano, and the first lessons with her mother. Her performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto and the recording at the age of 20 which, over 50 years later, remains the benchmark interpretation of this work. Her marriage at 22 to conductor Daniel Barenboim. Finally, the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis which eventually renders her unable to play. Marston’s skill is to strip back narrative and focus on the emotional and psychological using her classical-contemporary vocabulary to explore and articulate the inner lives of the characters. The life and career of du Pre are filled with emotion and complexity, and Marston does a brilliant job.
The Cellist is a love story of the purest and deepest kind. It is the story of the life-long relationship between The Cellist, danced in the performance I attended by Beatriz Stix-Brunell, and The Instrument, her Davidov Stradivarius, danced by Calvin Richardson. This relationship, despite her family attachments and marriage to Barenboim (The Conductor, danced by Matthew Ball), is the primary and defining one of her life.
Marston created the role of The Instrument on Marcelino Sambe. Dark, stocky and more obviously muscular than the fairer, lithe, lean Richardson, I imagine that Sambe’s interpretation of the role perfectly reflects the burnished, sensuous physicality of the cello. Richardson’s interpretation is deeply moving and captures the passion, resonant depth and existential joy of the music The Cellist creates through him. The pas de deux between Stix-Brunell and Richardson are not set to the music, rather they are the embodiment of the music. The Cellist’s swaying movements as she surrounds and engulfs The Instrument and the rhythmic swinging of her long hair are instantly recognisable as du Pre, without any danger of pastiche. In these pas de deux a fine balance of power is achieved, where The Cellist remains both in control yet entirely surrendered to the music.
Finally comes the agony of the onset of multiple sclerosis and the catastrophic impact this has on her ability to play. With the loss of sensation in her fingers, she is unable to co-ordinate her fingering or gauge the weight of the bow in her hand. Tremors in her hands echo the earlier vibrato of her fingering. In the pas de deux with The Instrument, The Cellist’s movements are now stiffer. The choreography has traces of the earlier joy, but the fluidity has gone. She faces the existential torment of being broken. It is through us that music comes into being and now, for The Cellist, the conduit is ruptured. In pain and despair, her relationship with The Instrument is tormented and full of rejection and conflict.
The final scene shows The Cellist sitting rigidly upright in the high-wing-back chair into which she has been lowered. The Conductor, her husband, has placed The Instrument across her and, in an echo of how her mother taught her as a child, moves her hands for her. As the curtain comes down, The Instrument leaves her and staying close dances around her, twisting and turning with sinuous depth. This is the music she and The Instrument create. But it is also The Instrument in its own right. This cello, this Stradivarius, is very, very old. It has entered into relationships with many cellists. The relationship with this cellist was but one. The Instrument will continue to dance on as it outlives us all.
The Cellist had its world premiere at the Royal Opera House on 17th February 2020 and ran until 4th March 2020. It was performed with Dances at a Gathering by Jerome Robbins. The alternative cast for The Cellist was Lauren Cuthbertson (The Cellist), Marcelino Sambe (The Instrument) and Matthew Ball (The Conductor).
Kate Coleman is a member of DanceGRiST.