Dances at a Gathering / The Cellist

Choreography Jerome Robbins, Cathy Marston, music Chopin, Philip Feeney
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House
to

Love and the joy of music is the link in this balanced (about one hour each) double bill (live in cinemas 25 February) that lifts and calms the spirit in the first half only to dim it in the second, the sorrow and the pity of passionate life cut short.

Jerome Robbins stated categorically, in capitals, that his 1969 Dances at a Gathering for New York City Ballet had no plots, no roles, that “the dancers are themselves.” Which, of course, means that their personalities, at least, figure in their response to the music as much as his.

So casting matters… in 1970, his first British cast included Rudolf Nureyev, Lynn Seymour, David Wall, Michael Coleman (whom I remember fondly in Robbins’s amusing The Concert in 1975), Anthony Dowell, and Antoinette Sibley.

Balanchine famously said, “more, more—make it like popcorn”, in other words an easy treat, and Dances at a Gathering is that. Eighteen solo piano works (pianist tonight Robert Clark) pop and melt effortlessly in the mouth. Mark Morris, for sure, was influenced, so similar is some of his work, that celebration of hard-won music in blithe, seeming effortless, dance.

And as Balanchine, again, observed, there’s always a story if you put a man and a woman on stage. Here there are ten (five male, five female) in solos (a jaunty, carefree and showy opening one from Alexander Campbell; a self-absorbed confident solo from Laura Morera), pas de deux, trois, cinque, people passing through, toing and froing, stopping for a moment, changing partners, falling out, as frisky a variety of playful and introspective dance as at any gathering.

This feels open air, in the country, a village (Polish perhaps from the heel clicking and folk dance inflections) coming together, familiar friends comfortable with each other, boys sizing up the girls, girls going off in pairs, buddy duets, the sky is blue with nary a cloud, maybe a few wisps. Tableaux form as if for a group photo, couples, girls, stand, reform and contemplate the sky. As many moods, as there are people. Exterior and interior worlds glimpsed: drifty, episodic, but so soothing.

For one gloriously lyrical hour, witty and warm, a synaesthetic response to Chopin’s waltzes, mazurkas and etudes, a scherzo, and a nocturne to finish—dancers dressed and named after a colour—is a dream in every sense. Robbins seems unstoppable, the choreography a flood of ideas and inspired teasing permutations.

Marianela Nuñez, Morera, Federico Bonelli and Valentino Zucchetti (Pink, Green, Purple, Blue) bring a certain maturity to their parts; Francesca Hayward, Yasmine Naghdi (such soft arms), Fumi Kaneko (Mauve, Apricot, Blue), Campbell, William Bracewell, Luca Acri (Brown, Green, Brick) distil a youthful energy. All excellent, lovely dives, shoulder lifts, and amusing exits...

Non-narrative dance changes to narrative, biographical, that of the immensely gifted Jacqueline du Pré (The Cellist), tragically taken too young at 42, though she stopped playing at 28, by multiple sclerosis (Marston has experience of it in her family, her mother—as do I of a dancer relative taken at 39), but The Cellist is more about inseparable bonds, the intensity of love, loss of innocence, of letting go at one’s peak, than the invidious disease. A world première for Cathy Marston, her first work for the main house, and money has not been spared.

Hildegarde Bechtler has created a minimalist set of dark, room-divider, curved architectural walls, that are constantly reconfigured by the scene-shifting Chorus of Narrators, to represent the shape of a cello, concert halls, rehearsal and classrooms, family home; Philip Feeney has composed music after Elgar (his Cello Concerto, that du Pré made so her own, weaves in and out), Beethoven, Fauré, Mendelssohn, Piatti, Rachmaninov, and Schubert; director of RADA, dramaturge Edward Kemp has shaped the scenario.

In her signature style (Victoria, Jane Eyre, The Suit), Marston has anthropomorphised the cello (The Instrument danced by Marcelino Sambé, cello played by Helen Snell) and turned the corps into inanimate objects—a standard light, the switch a finger, the light bulb an open hand, one example, a record player another. The stage is so cluttered with personnel—parents, sister, a trio of Cello Teachers, a trio of Musical Friends, a grey-clad Chorus of Narrators toting vinyl records, the fruits of du Pré’s emerging talent—that it is difficult to work out who is who without resorting to the cast list.

The ever-brilliant Kristen McNally is a fusspot of a Mother, overprotective, constantly dressing her daughter in cardigans just in case… Anna Rose O’Sullivan has little to do as her Sister, as does Thomas Whitehead as the pipe-smoking middle-class Father, a passive figure brushing crumbs from his afternoon tea under the carpet. There are also younger versions of herself and her sister (Emma Lucano and Lauren Godfrey).

What they all do is detract and distract from the central ménage a trois—The Instrument, The Cellist and The Conductor (Daniel Barenboim of course). Too much padding—less might be more. There’s a chamber piece struggling to get out of this overworked symphony, which takes the eye away from Lauren Cuthbertson’s central role (a slenderer version of du Pré, but hair just so) and her impassioned love-making with The Instrument. And Jon Clark’s chiaroscuro lighting, adding though it does to the sombre mood, makes it hard to breach the gloom.

Du Pré’s passion for The Instrument is ecstatic, erotic, moving—it is her very soul—heartbreaking when she can’t play it anymore. The love affair with The Conductor (Matthew Ball fine and saturnine, but with less of a profile than Sambé, who dominates the stage as much as the caressing and caressed Instrument dominated du Pré) is a different matter.

The Cellist engaged my brain but not my gut. The Stradivarius Instrument mourns but carries on dancing, Barenboim we know also found another partner. Du Pré’s talent remains on those vinyl records the Chorus embodies.

Reviewer: Vera Liber