Dancer from the Dance

‘O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance’

William Butler Yeats (1989)

The Cellist

Choreography Cathy Marston

Scenario Cathy Marston and Edward Kemp

Music Philip Feeney after Edwards Elgar, Ludwig van Beethoven, Gabriel Fauré, Felix Mandelson, Alfredo Piatti, Serge Rachmaninov, and Franz Schubert

Royal Opera House, London

Beatrix Stix-Brunell and Calvin Richardson @2020 ROH

Credit: The Cellist. Marcelino Sambe. ©ROH, 2020

The Cellist is a new one-act ballet from multi-award-winning choreographer Cathy Marston. This time it was a part of a mixed programme with Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering. However, this is a piece that requires a review of its own despite its brevity.

The Cellist is a ballet about a talented musician whose rise to fame was cut short by a debilitating illness. The narrative revolves around the relationship between the musician and her cello and it is the cello that is the protagonist, a conscious being whose feelings of recognition and joy, and subsequently of rejection and grief form the dramatic fabric of the work. The choreographer’s focus on the effervescent spirit of music and the powerful physical and emotional energy hidden within a musical instrument rather than on the physical fragility of its player made this work a remarkable piece of narrative ballet.

The ballet is inspired by the life of Jacqueline du Pré, one of the greatest cellists of all times and the first wife of the celebrated pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. Du Pré found her ability to play deteriorating at the age of 28 and by the time she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1973, she had given up public performance. She died at 42. And though the narrative of the ballet touches lightly on the absence of Barenboim from her later life — who by then moved to France to become director of the Orchestre de Paris, and started a new relationship and then a new family there — the love and the crushing loss amplified in The Cellist were not for her ex-husband but for the vitality of the spirit of her music, her talent, and her cello.

The cello referred to in the ballet is most likely du Pré’s Davidov Stradivarius of 1712 which she played between 1964 and 1969, and which we hear on her most famous recordings including the Elgar Concerto with Barbirolli. Later, the Vuitton Foundation purchased her Stradivarius and made it available on loan to Yo-Yo Ma.

The music of this ballet is a complicated matter. Instead of resorting to one original piece of music, the composer Philip Feeney created a complex arrangement of his own music with extracts from du Pré’s repertory. While none of the pieces that made du Pré so famous, including the Elgar Concerto, would have suited the narrative, their melange is a perfect way to weave concert music into the ballet giving this biography-inspired fantasy an extra dimension.

Beatrix Stix-Brunell and Calvin Richardson @2020 ROH

Credit: The Cellist. Marcelino Sambe. ©ROH, 2020

The role of the Cellist was the most challenging both conceptually and technically as it aspired to depict du Pré both as a prodigy at the beginning and an invalid at the end. Beatriz Stix-Brunell’s interpretation of du Pre’s powerful and expressive style was guided by the force of her talent but somewhat lacked the physical strength and vitality of the celebrated cellist herself. However, the expression of illness was beautiful, the trembling of the hand resembling the vibrato rising to heart-breaking heights and, at its peak, despair and depression that culminate in death.

The role of the Instrument is a masterpiece. Marston already has used a male dancer to embody the cello in one of her previous works, Dangerous Liaisons. The combination of fluidity of the dancer and the cello range, which is known to have a similar range and timbre to the human voice, moves the character of the wooden instrument away from the pure fantasy and more towards magical realism. Calvin Richardson danced the role with much energy and elegance, almost feminine in the range of emotions, just a step away from spiralling into abandon and intensity.

The instrument is being passed from one talented player to another throughout the ballet being humanised as much as it is possible without being simplified to the state of a caricature. Such protagonist allows for the tragic identification with the character, who endures the loss of a treasured connection and has no choice but to move on, rather that with the character that dies. This process of observing love and the vibrant, exuberant life going by, fizzling out into fading memories and disappearing brings one to the reflection on one’s own losses.

Calvin Richardson @2020 ROH

Credit: The Cellist. Marcelino Sambe. ©ROH, 2020

Instead of the relief brought by watching the hero miraculously escaping death or by misidentification with him (or her) after the death ends the story, offered by more conventional ballets, in The Cellist there is no escape from turning the gaze upon oneself. Richardson’s dancing carries the agency of the tragic narrative all the way to the cathartic bidding of the audience, to tears. The beauty of this ballet is not only in the powerful emotions but in the hint that not all the life is a stage; sometimes there is life beyond the scene that reflects ourselves to us as we watch anonymously an intimate, close relationship that lives and dies within a 60-minute act.

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