“Do you find talent, or does it choose you?” was the question Cathy Marston was pondering when she spoke to Gramophone last year. With the premiere of her new work based on Jacqueline du Pré for The Royal Ballet, she makes her decision. The cello doesn’t just choose du Pré, it fixates on her and doesn’t let her go.

Lauren Cuthbertson and Marcelino Sambé in <i>The Cellist</i> © ROH | Bill Cooper
Lauren Cuthbertson and Marcelino Sambé in The Cellist
© ROH | Bill Cooper

As those unmistakable opening spread chords of Elgar’s Cello Concerto are heard for the first time, Marcelino Sambé uncoils from beside a cello case and, gently placing his hands on either side of young Jackie’s face, lifts her up; held upside down, she already has a cellist’s stance, legs wide apart, feet flexed. (We revisit this position, most poignantly at the end of the ballet, her legs now uncontrollably twitching.)

Sambé is wonderful, a spinning, swirling, sliding shape-shifter with a life and identity of his own, even when he’s being manoeuvred by teachers, parents, du Pré’s husband Daniel Barenboim (a dashing Matthew Ball) and Jackie herself. He’s otherworldly, yet also strangely human, his facial expressions conveying a multitude of emotions – from ecstasy at being played, to forlorn dejection as du Pré’s multiple sclerosis robs her of her talent. How can an instrument’s soul speak if forced to remain silent?

Lauren Cuthbertson and Marcelino Sambé in <i>The Cellist</i> © ROH | Bill Cooper
Lauren Cuthbertson and Marcelino Sambé in The Cellist
© ROH | Bill Cooper

The young Jackie, Emma Lucano, is delightful – cheeky, goofy, vivacious (though she and the pit cello aren’t in synch when she bows her first faltering notes). When Lauren Cuthbertson enters, wearing the same blue dress and 1970s knitted cardigan, she transmits the same energy. Bored at school, clowning around at home, Cuthbertson’s du Pré is only truly happy playing her cello. Under the watchful gaze of her classmates, she gives her debut concert: Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words.

In this first cellist-cello pas de deux, we see Marston’s self-coined ‘cello position’ properly for the first time. Sambé kneels on one leg, the other leg outstretched. One arm rests by his side, the other arm lifts to form the neck of the cello; his flexed hand is the scroll. Cuthbertson straddles him from behind, holding the ‘neck’ with her left hand, which vibrates, an imaginary bow in her right. As the music builds and the cello’s spirit takes flight, Sambé whirls her around, her feet still in cellist stance, brushing the floor. Cuthbertson returns to her imaginary bowing, but it’s when these dancers break free from mime that the choreography becomes more attractive, Cuthbertson’s gorgeous air-borne dévelopées suggesting bowing in a subtler way. Lifts are occasionally clumsy, unpliable dress fabric getting in the way. But the shifting dynamics between the two characters are thought-provoking – is Jackie playing her cello, or is the cello playing her?

Marcelino Sambé, Matthew Ball and Lauren Cuthbertson in <i>The Cellist</i> © ROH | Bill Cooper
Marcelino Sambé, Matthew Ball and Lauren Cuthbertson in The Cellist
© ROH | Bill Cooper

The score is expertly knitted together by Marston’s long-time collaborator Philip Feeney, comprising arrangements of the music du Pré loved to play, including the Elgar. We hear echoes of it straight away – little tremolo passages from the second movement, so fleeting we wonder if we’ve imagined them, and fragments of the opening. With Barenboim on the rostrum (I’d have preferred less faux conducting from Ball here), we finally hear the entire first movement (played brilliantly by Hetty Snell). The chemistry between Ball and Cuthbertson is palpable, each only having eyes for the other. The ‘orchestra’ of Royal Ballet artists is mesmerising, each ‘section’ unfurling. Another joy is the re-creation of the Trout rehearsal (famously captured in Christopher Nupen’s 1969 documentary). To the spirited Scherzo from Schubert’s Quintet, du Pré and Barenboim caper about with three friends, Ball’s Barenboim playing the piano on his lover’s stomach with cheeky aplomb.

For a choreographer who avoids props – dancers are hat-stands, lamps, record players – why use a spinning stool in Ball and Cuthbertson’s pas de deux? Even more incongruous are the multiple cello cases wielded about the stage by the ‘chorus of narrators’. But Hildegard Bechtler’s set, a rotating curved construction, cleverly suggests the constant flux of life as a touring musician and also, with its carved-out seat, doubles up as a place of repose – for Sambé, as he observes the lovers from afar, and for Jackie as she comes to terms with her diagnosis. Now we see a beseeching Sambé lift Cuthbertson upside down, but this time she stops him, pushing him away. When Cuthbertson can’t prevent her bow from shaking, Sambé nudges his head under her arm and carries her, then kisses her hand.

Marianela Núñez and Alexander Campbell in <i>Dances at a Gathering</i> © ROH | Bill Cooper
Marianela Núñez and Alexander Campbell in Dances at a Gathering
© ROH | Bill Cooper

If The Cellist is a vehicle for three principal dancers, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering (1969), to the piano music of Chopin, is a company affair. Ten dancers, all outstanding, eke out an extended courtship ritual over 65 minutes that, in a series of solos, duets, trios and ensembles, is by turns charming, humorous, bucolic and virtuosic. The sheer musicianship of Robbins is breathtaking, his choreography interpreting and playing with the ever-unfolding invention of Chopin’s assorted mazurkas, waltzes, études, scherzos and nocturnes. But what’s so heartening is the dancers’ musicality, which more than matches the choreographer’s. It seems churlish to name individual dancers, but Marianela Nuñez’s ability to stretch out each movement to fill every phrase – indeed, to extend time itself – is nothing short of miraculous. Alexander Campbell is similarly attuned to what he hears. But all ten dancers rise to the occasion. From the men’s light-as-air cabrioles and double tours en l’air landing in pliés, to the women’s lilting arabesques and delicate brisés – not to mention the thrilling, partner-swapping ‘pass-the-parcel’ throws – watching Dances at a Gathering is like being given an exquisitely gift-wrapped box of (pastel-coloured) macaroons and knowing each one will be delicious. Pianist Robert Clark received the biggest cheer of the night, making music the clear winner here. Jacqueline du Pré would have approved.

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