Royal Opera House The Cellist by British choreographer Cathy Marston inspects the life of famed musician,  Jacqueline du Pré. We meet her as a child and follow her journey from discovering the cello to a life in the spotlight and her personal struggle with multiple sclerosis. The Cellist brings Jacqueline du Pré’s biography to life – as told by her own instrument – to Philip Feeney’s score, which features snippets of cello music from Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff and Schubert.

The Cellist ballet premiered at the Royal Opera House in February 2020 and is being shown online from 29 May to 11 June, 2020, as part of the Royal Opera House’s free From Our House to Your House programme. The show runs about 65 minute without intervals.

The Royal Opera House is part of our dance at home resources list. During lockdown, they have also shared Royal Ballet’s Anastasia by Kenneth MacMillan and The Metamorphosis by Arthur Pita.

A woman embraces a man who sits on the ground
Lauren Cuthbertson embraces Marcelino Sambe in Royal Opera House ‘The Cellist’.
Photo credit: Bill Cooper

Royal Ballet:The Cellist Review

In this biographical ballet about Jacqueline du Pré (Lauren Cuthbertson) and her cello (Marcelino Sambé) – everyone else plays second fiddle, even husband Daniel Barenboim (Matthew Ball). The piece sweetly conveys du Pré’s deep passion for her craft, as well as her dynamic relationship with playing music at different points in her life.

We meet her Stradivarius (The 1673), lying behind the sweeping black contours of his case. His memories of du Pré guide the piece, first transporting us to meet her as a child. Girls Jacqueline (Emma Lucano) and sister Hilary (Lauren Godfrey) scamper throughout the house with Paul Totelier’s record: Elgar Cello Concerto. The music wraps around Jacqueline, as the cello’s spirit cups his hands over her ears like headphones and sweeps her away on an auditory journey.

At times, Marston presents the cello as a physical object. He kneels in front du Pré, raising an arm as the elegant neck of the cello. du Pré cradles him and the two share this type of embrace from her very first lessons with mother (Kristen McNally) to her final days. While this sort of pantomime could look hokey, it’s choreographed beautifully. And when the cello expands from his typical positions as an instrument, he is the fluid music personified: slightly wavering alongside du Pré or caterwauling through the space with her.

A man watches as a woman plays her cello
Marcelino Sambe personifies Jacqueline du Pre’s cello in Royal Ballet ‘The Cello’ by Cathy Marston.
Photo credit: Bill Cooper

Sometimes, a gray-clad corps comes on stage to reflect the music, too. (I suppose, in general, this is the essence of what most dancers do – except those Merce Cunningham dance disciples, and those that put concept and choreography before music.) The large group of dancers also sit on a bench, part of Hildegard Bechtler’s clever rotating set, and act as du Pré’s audience members. The ballet would be suited to a smaller, more intimate venue, and an ensemble of six or so would have been sufficient. While the large group doesn’t detract from the work, they don’t contribute much as a whole.

Marston’s choreography for the instrument, du Pré and Barenboim is more than enough to keep audiences captivated. The swirling kaleidoscope of movement does not get tired, although with all the technical turning and demanding modern floorwork – the dancers might.

Mercifully, the ballet compresses the last years of du Pré’s life, during which she gave up performing. We witness the small telltale signs of health problems through to the anguish of her diagnosis and her final reckoning with multiple sclerosis. Her family carries du Pré to a chair, followed the cello. He drapes over her body and she quietly passes; but he rises and spins like a record, carrying on her musical legacy.

Star Rating:

Royal Ballet’s The Cellist by Cathy Marston is a gorgeous, moving work of art. The dancers flow together, speaking clearly without any dialogue – and repeated motifs tidily bind the piece without becoming overdone. Sambé brings flawless technique, softened by an admirable amount of tenderness, and Cuthbertson complements this with an honest and vulnerable performance.

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Did you see Royal Opera House The Cellist online or at their grand venue in London? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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