The Cellist

Choreography by Cathy Marston, music by Philip Feeney
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House

Marcelino Sambé as The Cello and Lauren Cuthbertson as The Cellist Credit: Bill Cooper
Marcelino Sambé as The Cello, Matthew Ball as The Conductor and Lauren Cuthbertson as The Cellist Credit: Bill Cooper
Thomas Whitehead as Her Father, Marcelino Sambé as The Cello and Lauren Cuthbertson as The Cellist Credit: Bill Cooper

Made available on line as part of the Royal Opera House's #OurHouseToYourHouse series, this ballet inspired by the life of cellist Jacqueline du Pré premièred at Covent Garden earlier this year.

Here no one has names: they are The Cellist, The Instrument, The Conductor—but it is still Du Pré’s story from her first hearing the sound of the cello to becoming an acclaimed musician, wife of pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, to being stricken by multiple sclerosis which ended her performing career aged only 28.

It is the story of a love affair but choreographer Kathy Marston isn’t interested in the details of the Barenboims’ marriage: this is a love affair with music, of a ménage a trois made up of man, woman and cello. It is danced to a score in which composer Philip Feeney draws on themes from Du Pré’s repertoire: Fauré, Rachmaninov, Mendelssohn, Piatti, Beethoven and especially the Elgar cello concerto.

The cello is beautifully played in the orchestra pit by Hetty Snell; on stage, it comes to life through dancer Marcelino Sambé. He’s seen first lying by his instrument case before stretching upwards and spinning towards a chorus of people perhaps listening to records, stirring them to life as they circle long-playing records until they scatter as a girl runs in chased by her younger sister. She is waving a newly bought Tortellier recording.

This breaks the abstraction of the action, emphasised by Hildegarde Bechtler’s setting of moving walls curved like the body of the cello or like sound waves, as the scene becomes domestic. Excitedly, the little girl (Emma Lucano) insists they play it—and they do on a gramophone formed out of people. It is a rather self-conscious reversal of the cello’s personification but, as Sambé’s Cello gently lifts her into ecstasy then spins and leaps around her, the instrument’s personification has now become perfectly natural.

The little girl gets the cello she asks for and, soon replaced by Lauren Cuthbertson in an identical cardigan as she grows older, develops her talent and leaves the shelter of her family as she begins her relationship with The Conductor.

The intensity of that attraction builds through the presentation of a concerto performance with the conductor and the chorus as the orchestra that then turns into a thrilling pas de trois.

International success is celebrated in exuberant dance and sexual joy in an ecstatic pas de deux as the Cello waits in the background but then exhaustion and something wrong sees the Cello nuzzling against the Cellist like a concerned cat and that leads into a worried duet that partly echoes their first encounter. There is a touching presentation of an attempt to return to the concert platform and a conflicted duet with the Cello.

As playing becomes a memory and performance what is preserved on records, the Cello spins still as a last sad note vibrates on the cello string.

You can’t help being moved by Du Pré’s story but sometimes The Cellist suffers from overload. At a first viewing, it isn’t always clear what point the chorus are making but the pas de deux and pas de trois for the principals are dramatic and inventive. Matthew Ball as the Conductor and Cuthbertson as the Cellist give passionate performances and Sambé shows great sensitivity as well as vibrant dancing. They are extremely watchable.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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