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A Bold Arrival

Cathy Marston has arrived. Actually, the British choreographer has been doing exciting work for decades now, but the Royal Ballet has finally given her a main stage commission, which is another way of punching her members’ card. Marston’s new ballet follows in the steps of a string of ambitious narrative productions for the likes of Bern Ballett and Northern Ballet, from “Wuthering Heights” to “Jane Eyre” to “Victoria.” Her passion (and gift) for dramatising left-field subjects hits a high note here: the focus is Jacqueline du Pré, a prodigious British cellist whose talent sadly dissolved in the clutch of multiple sclerosis. Marston has transcribed Du Pré’s biography with admirable compassion, celebrating her story without exploiting the tragedy that makes it dramatic.

Performance

The Royal Ballet: “The Cellist”/“Dances at a Gathering,” choreography by Cathy Marston/Jerome Robbins

Place

Royal Opera House, London, UK, February 17, 2020

Words

Sara Veale

Marcelino Sambé and Lauren Cuthbertson in Cathy Marston's “The Cellist.” Photograph by Bill Cooper

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Lauren Cuthbertson is our protagonist, luminous as she twirls in the woody light of the music hall. Her romance with conductor Daniel Barenboim (a gallant Matthew Ball) is an absorbing affair, but it’s her relationship with her instrument that’s the true love story here. Reasoning that the cello is “the most human of all instruments,” Marston has assigned the role to a dancer (Marcelino Sambé), which sounds dubious but, under her imaginative direction, works with minimal fuss. Cocking his arm and settling between Cuthbertson’s arms, Sambé syncs to the role with glorious articulation, deepening their connection by embracing her back. Marston works out a striking vocabulary for the pair, with tender grips and wide rond de jambes, Cuthbertson brandishing her hand (and sometimes her leg) across his chest like a bow to a string.

The Cellist
Marcelino Sambé and Lauren Cuthbertson in Cathy Marston's “The Cellist.” Photograph by Bill Cooper

Her duets with Ball, by contrast, see their bodies slotted together every which way; there’s more possibility, but the puzzle of their relationship is harder to solve. As ever, Marston steps outside of the classical lexicon, tasking her leads with innovative poses and interfaces, sometimes sideways or upside down. Elsewhere there are wide legs, heavy contractions and wiggly torsos as the ensemble chips away in the background. A centrepiece scene sees them flock around Cuthbertson, the orchestra to her solo, with Ball conducting from the podium. The music, naturally, braids together snippets of Du Pré’s repertory, including Elgar, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff.

There are moments when the story loses its clarity, especially for those of us unfamiliar with Du Pré, but I don’t think the reliance on programme notes is a problem here, since it’s in service of bringing a noteworthy—and true—story to life. A slightly murkier issue is the excessively literal libretto, which entails some busy back-and-forth with parents and teachers and record-waving fans. There’s also the uneasy plaiting of Du Pré’s childhood and adult selves, a familiar Marston device. It’s sweet to see our protagonist blossom as a young student but slightly confusing when the young Jacqueline returns at the end.

Federico Bonelli and Marianela Núñez in “Dances at a Gathering“ by Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Bill Cooper.

“The Cellist” is paired with Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering,” a 1969 ballet that delights in, and insists on, its plotlessness. (“THERE ARE NO STORIES TO ANY OF THE DANCES,” Robbins requested that Ballet Review print in 1972.) (Emphasis his.) It’s a swirl of watercolours and mazurkas, solos and group dances, each with an understated, spontaneous tack. Ten dancers, mostly principals, deliver its joyous phrases, which are flecked with folksy footwork and bouncy shows of ballon, Chopin’s piano notes tinkering along from the pit. The backdrop wafts between a high-noon blue sky and an amethyst dusk.

Marianela Núñez steals every scene she’s in, making spellwork of her timing. (How does she manage to get so much out of a single eight-count?) Her duet with Alexander Campbell is full of frothy lifts and elegant affectations, while Federico Bonelli ferries her around in a playful plank. Yasmine Naghdi is also a bright spot—chipper and flighty, with extra-perky port de bras.

It’s a leisurely procession, but momentum comes from the easy intimacy of the cast and their low-stakes escapades. The dancers weave notes of friendship into their gambols, exchanging glances and touching fingers like buddies in the classroom. The sillier steps in particular—cartwheels, handheld echappées—unfold like a little inside joke.

Sara Veale


Sara Veale is a London-based writer and editor. She's written about dance for the Observer, the Spectator, DanceTabs, Auditorium Magazine, Exeunt and more. Her first book, Untamed: The Radical Women of Modern Dance, will be published in 2024.

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