Dances at a Gathering / The Cellist is a magnificent double bill from the Royal Ballet, which I saw last night in a live screening at the Curzon Richmond.
The Cellist tells the story of the triumph and tragedy of Jacqueline du Pre. Triumph because she became the most famous and glamorous cellist in the world and tragic because she was dead by 28, cruelly cut down by multiple sclerosis. The choreographer Cathy Marston’s idea, to make the cello a character is a masterstroke. We see the ballet through the eyes of the instrument, so to speak. This is made possible by the remarkable embodiment of the titular instrument in the exquisite movements of Marcelino Sambe. He is utterly spellbinding. The cello brings all three protagonists together: the cellist Jacqueline, the cello and the conductor Daniel Barenboim. Not so much the three tenors but the three C’s. Jacqueline and Daniel fall in love via the cello. This is beautifully expressed in a pas de trois in which Marcelino entangles, enjoins and entwines the lovers in a dance to the music of time. “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?” There is no easy answer to Yeats’ question but The Cellist offers intriguing and tantalising possibilities. Hildegard Bechtler the set designer has given us further pause for thought by hinting that the action takes place within the cello itself – so that we are inside looking out. Fascinating.
The cello is a melancholy instrument and so the form and the content reinforce each other. This reaches heights of emotional intensity when Jacqueline’s signature piece Elgar’s Cello Concerto is played at full volume by Hetty Snell. Was there a dry eye in the house? Lauren Cuthbertson has gone the whole way into the role even dyeing her hair blonde. She is mesmerising as the swaying, passionate, dynamic cellist. She brings Jacqueline alive for us. Her portrayal of Jacqueline’s sudden loss of ‘finger power’ is heartbreaking, haunting and harrowing. Matthew Ball is as dashing and romantic as they come.
Dances at a Gathering is a delightful series of short dances from the late great Jerome Robbins (West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof). Think of them as the equivalent of Pictures at an Exhibition. All set to Chopin piano pieces exquisitely played by Robert Clark. The pieces are playful, joyous even jaunty. Paul Simon said there were fifty ways to leave your lover – well Robbins has come up with fifty ways to exit the stage. Each is funnier and cheekier than the last. My favourite was the horizontal fireman’s lift.
Robbins has put together every imaginable combination of routine. From solos to ensembles. He has a keen awareness of the dilemma posed by the threesome. Namely the inevitability of the 2 vis 1. He plays with this to great effect, part comic but part sinister. He brings Canova’s masterpiece The Three Graces gloriously to life in a piece featuring Marianela Nunez, Francesca Hayward and Fumi Kaneko. The 10-strong cast is outstanding. Look out for William Bracewell an outstanding prospect. He has the physique, power and posture to be one of the very best.
Review by John O’Brien
Cathy Marston has previously been an Associate Artist of the Royal Opera House and Director of Bern Ballett, and is much in demand internationally. The inspiration for her first work for The Royal Ballet Main Stage is the momentous life and career of the cellist Jacqueline du Pré. Jerome Robbins’s elegant and elegiac classic forms the first part of the programme. This exercise in pure dance for five couples, set to music by Chopin, is a masterpiece of subtlety and invention.
Approximate running times:
Dances at a Gathering: 1 hour 5 minutes
Interval: 30 minutes
The Cellist: 1 hour 5 minutes
17 February – 4 March 2020
The performance lasts around 2 hours 40 minutes, including one interval.