Sunday, May 31, 2020

Dancing du Pré



Ballet at its finest does something no other art form can match. It can articulate elusive emotions and ineffable relationships, making them palpable when words would scarcely exist. How, for instance, can one capture the nature of the relationship between a musician and their instrument? The interdependency which seems to make the latter into a second self, an interwoven soul?

The latest online offering from the Royal Opera House is the new ballet The Cellist by choreographer Cathy Marston, which was premiered only a few months ago. It's the story of Jacqueline du Pré, with original score by Philip Feeney partly based on many different pieces from her repertoire - Elgar, Schubert, Beethoven, Fauré, Schumann and more - with one important difference. The cello is human.

Indeed, he's Marcelino Sambé, one of the Royal Ballet's brightest young stars (if you saw the disappointingly infantilised TV documentary about the company's male dancers the other day, you'll have spotted him there). How do you become a cello? Sambé's extraordinary dancing embodies it all: there's virtuosity, plasticity, dignity, yearning beauty and an otherness, offset by human beings with their multiplicity of everyday detail. Moreover, anyone who's ever dated or married a musician knows that "there's three of us in this relationship": and the emotional height is not the sensual Fauré-based pas de deux for the Cellist and the Husband, but the performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto - backed by a dancing orchestra - in which the two of them and the Cello become an inseparable twelve-limbed conglomeration of movement, concentration and flow, rising and falling individually yet as one.

Opening with the rolling of many LPs, which inspire the child Jackie to dream of learning to play, with the Cello reaching out to her, the ballet follows her from her first lessons through young adulthood, leaving home, meeting and marrying her conductor husband (of whom more in a moment) and the heights of success; then the onset of her illness and her decline until the poignant final scene in which she lies in her armchair listening to her own recording, with Sambé spinning around her like an LP in frisbee flight.

The dramaturgical detail is seriously enjoyable for du Pré fans, who will guess that Gary Avis is William Pleeth, taking hold of Sambé to demonstrate a phrase, or that the wedding is in Israel by the Wailing Wall amid the wartime dangers of 1967, and that the Jewish wedding dance is but a step away from Hava Nagila. The 'Musical Friends' in bright-coloured shirts who join the three leads for a session based on the scherzo of the 'Trout' Quintet are bound to be Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Zubin Mehta - capturing in dance all the joyous collegiality, quirkiness and high-jinx fun that the quintet brought to that famous filmed performance: Jackie is transformed briefly into her husband's piano, held for him by the three men, which feels like a delicious riff on the way the group were captured in Christopher Nupen's film trying to play one another's instruments. Much of this won't be obvious to those who are not intimately familiar with du Pré's history, but those who are will derive a bit of extra "ooh" factor from the ballet.

Lauren Cuthbertson as The Cellist, Marcelino Sambé as The Instrument
Photo: (c) ROH, Bill Cooper 

Matthew Ball as the Husband - Daniel Barenboim, of course - can't help but be taller and lither than the man himself, but his dancing really does embody something of Barenboim's driven, animalistic energy. As The Cellist, Lauren Cuthbertson too is uncannily like du Pré, in blue dress, pony tail and a succession of cardigans: the generous smile, the open-limbed joie-de-vivre, the absolute get-up-and-go that vanishes in the agony of illness, finally shattering in the trembling of a bow arm that, in front of an assembled audience and with Sambé ready in front of her, simply will not move.

Other characters are treated with a lighter touch than they have sometimes received in other contexts. The Sister (implicitly Hilary) is an archetypal sister, stirring Jackie's tea, beautifully danced by Anna Rose O'Sullivan. The parents are a lovely, conventional family and the Mother's anguish over the abandoned cardigan as Jackie vanishes into the big wide world is deeply touching. Marston sets all of this with a gentle, humane quirkiness in which the Cello is not the only inanimate object transformed by human portrayal: dancers become the family furniture, with a finger as a switch on a lamp, and later, briefly, du Pré's wheelchair. Specially wonderful are a couple of star turns for the sisters as children, Lauren Godfrey as the teenage Hilary and Emma Lucano as the dreaming young Jackie, who match the adults for charisma, character and expertise.

Marston's choreography captures all of this wealth of history, imagination and otherwise intangible embodiment with tremendous flair. The cello performance starter-pose is perfect: Sambé kneeling in front of Cuthbertson with one raised arm as the cello's neck and one extended leg as its spike. Yet occasionally the sheer quantity of movement can feel overwhelming: personally I enjoy moments of slowness and stillness in ballet in which the eye and brain can enwrap more clearly the sculptural moments of the choreography, something one finds aplenty in Ashton and MacMillan. As in music, a rest can speak more loudly than demisemiquavers, so too in dance.

Perhaps the ultimate value of this ballet, though, is to illuminate for those to whom it's a new concept that a musical instrument is not just an inanimate object. You do not put them in the plane's hold, and this is why. It literally risks breaking your dancing partner into pieces. I hope that in the empty-skied lockdown, many off-duty airline staff will see and enjoy this fabulous creation and understand, some for the first time, exactly what they are doing.

Last but by no means least, there is glorious cello playing throughout from Hetty Snell.

You can watch the whole thing here. Please donate to the company, which is losing 60% of its income while forcibly closed, with no reopening date currently knowable.