Gary Avis as one of the cello teachers, Calvin Richardson as The Instrument and Beatriz Stix-Brunell as The Cellist. All photos taken by Bill Cooper, Royal Opera House

Dances at a Gathering, The Cellist (world premiere), The Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House

This article was written by our UK Correspondent  Deborah Weiss for  our April issue, before the Corona shutdown. Since we couldn’t publish this issue, we want to share this beautiful article with you. Here you can read it online for free now! 

In a double bill which opened with a Royal Ballet favourite and closed with a much anticipated world premiere by award winning choreographer Cathy Marston, The Royal Ballet has a programme which, as usual, amply demonstrates the versatility of its dancers.
I admire Marston’s tenacity. She’s not afraid to take risks, she has a vision which she pursues to the end and is meticulous in her research.  As a choreographer, she’s keen to tell us about the lives of famous women, fictional or historical – think Jane Eyre and Victoria. The Cellist, based on the life of cellist Jacqueline du Pré, is possibly her most challenging work to date and her first shot at creating a ballet for the Royal Opera House main stage. The biggest risk she took was turning the inanimate, solid, wooden cello into a living, breathing being and in doing so, gave the central characters an unusual but highly persuasive dynamic. In the form of Marcelino Sambé in the first cast and later, Calvin Richardson in an alternative cast, this unique approach was undoubtedly a coup de théâtre. However, the ballet is not without flaws. As with her previous works, we do not necessarily need a literal translation of events, where a hint would suffice. At times it progresses haltingly, we are left wondering what significance the various people have in du Pré’s life and whether or not they are just further cluttering up a stage that is sometimes frantically busy.

The Cellist. Marcelino Sambe. ©ROH 2020 Bill Cooper

Marston tells the story from childhood; du Pré’s prodigious talent (with the lovely Emma Lucano as the young Jackie) and success as a musician; the love story and resulting marriage between du Pré and conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim and finally the tragic, early end to her career and life due to multiple sclerosis. Hildegard Bechtler’s set designs, resembling the shape and insides of a cello, are striking and effective though when being moved, distractingly cumbersome. Toward the end of the ballet, as the set is swirled around by the dancers, representing the travel and du Pré’s subsequent exhaustion after relentless worldwide concert performances, it became nauseatingly diverting. Jon Clark’s lighting is excellent and Philip Feeney has produced and composed a masterful, highly expressive score using music by a number of composers as a basis, most notably Edward Elgar’s famous cello concerto. Where the ballet falters is in its frenetic use of a vast cast of characters that do not develop. The corps de ballet are woefully under-employed and double up as scenery shifters with very little in the way of memorable steps. Though I understand Marston’s reasons for introducing the family, the cello teachers, the friends and ‘narrators’, the swathes of action that flood the stage do nothing to enhance the narrative. And for a choreographer who likes to avoid props and use the dancers as inanimate objects (cupboards, record players), the lugging around of cello cases and the use of swivel chairs makes it excessively confusing.

Beatrix Stix-Brunell and Calvin Richardson
The Cellist. Marcelino Sambe, Matthew Ball and Lauren Cuthbertson. ©ROH, 2020 Bill Cooper

In the lead roles alongside Sambé’s extraordinary and mesmerising performance of The Instrument, Lauren Cuthbertson in the title role gave a heartrending interpretation. Never have we felt her joy or her pain so acutely. She danced beautifully in spite of some clumsy choreography in the numerous pas de deux – too many splayed legs and blue knicker exposure. As The Conductor (at both performances), Matthew Ball once again showed us what a believable dance/actor he is, as well as fleet of foot. Richardson, in the second cast, held his own as The Instrument, (who would want to follow Sambé?) giving us a different interpretation, equally fluid, a little more innocent.  Beatriz Stix-Brunell was absolutely terrific as The Cellist. Like Cuthbertson, she was able to persuade us of her passion. Her acting ability matching that of her dancing, the closing moments were emotionally charged, so much so that at both performances I felt moved to tears. The moment when The Instrument nudges The Cellist’s exhausted body like a bereft puppy, tipped me over the edge. That combined with Hettie Snell’s stunning performance on the cello brought the ballet to a suitable conclusion. However, in an ideal world, the piece would benefit from some cutting in order that we can focus on the best choreography and the soul of the ballet, the central trio.

Beatriz Stix-Brunell as The Cellist and Calvin Calvin Richardson as The Instrument

Opening the evening was Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering. This has seen many illustrious dancers perform on the Covent Garden stage over the years and in this revival, the two casts of ten dancers each, are exemplary. Robbins was insistent that this was not a narrative ballet, that the dancers were just themselves dancing to the music yet there are tenuous relationships and connections that emerge as they evolve according to Chopin’s mood. On opening night Alexander Campbell, in brown, began with a solo that looked effortlessly lyrical. He set the tone for the five couples that embraced this pure and musical feast with expert delivery. It is a dancers’ ballet – by that I mean that it’s impossible not to want to dance it.  And of the magnificent roster, Francesca Hayward and William Bracewell brought sheer beauty to the piece with their synchronous harmony.  They have a perceptible, natural épaulement that makes their movements seem very expansive and all broad stroked. Later, Laura Morera, always supremely musical, was ravishing with her exquisitely nuanced phrasing. Yasmine Naghdi, on such fine form, was speedily precise and effervescent in her first solo, magnificently negotiating its intricacies. And Valentino Zucchetti, ever vibrant, relished his moments on stage.  In the other cast, Sambé was a perfect dream as the man in brown; Reece Clarke brought a smooth majesty to his dancing and Mayara Magri and Anna Rose O’Sullivan were delightfully light and wistful. An added pleasure was Tierney Heap’s return to the stage after a long break with injury. This was absolutely the right vehicle for her to show that she has lost nothing through her time away. At both performances, Robert Clark, played Chopin’s rippling music magnificently.

by Deborah Weiss