The choreographer Cathy Marston has a knack for storytelling – her ballets, many based on classic works of literature, share an involving narrative drive. ‘The Cellist’, her first main stage commission for the Royal Ballet, adapts the real-life story – a biodance, if you will – of Jacqueline du Pré, that charts her dizzy rise to classical music superstardom and her descent into multiple sclerosis, which forced her to give up playing at the age of 28.
Hildegard Bechtler’s beautifully simple set gives the sense of being inside a cello, with one curved strip of light above the stage resembling the instrument’s F-holes and a curved revolving wooden screen that pushes the scenes along.
Bodies represent objects: dancers are cupboards, record players and, most importantly, instruments; at the heart of Marston’s vision of this tale is the love affair between du Pré and her Stradivarius cello. Marcelino Sambé gives the role of The Instrument a tumultuous energy, literally sweeping Lauren Cuthbertson’s du Pré off her feet as she melts into the ecstatic delight of playing, lifted on the swell of Philip Feeney’s classics-referencing score and Hetty Snell’s solo cello.
Does Sambé need to mimic an actual cello (on one knee, leaning back between Cuthbertson’s legs, with one arm raised) quite so often? Maybe not – but they build a convincing relationship. And when du Pré meets and marries the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim (Matthew Ball, all in black and seething with a dominating charisma) their unorthodox love triangle is a delirious tangle of limbs in almost constant motion.
Du Pré’s stumbling fall into illness is affectingly realised, with Cuthbertson’s tremors like a vibrato. And her and Sambe’s ‘break-up’ duet conveys the heartrending push-pull of how an energy that once sustained her now frightens and upsets her.
In contrast, Jerome Robbins insisted his 1969 piece ‘Dances at a Gathering’ had no storyline at all. You can’t help imagining little scenarios, though, as the ten dancers come together in different combinations to perform short, sharp dances on a bare stage to Chopin (mainly waltzes and mazurkas) over 65 minutes. There’s melancholy, perky flirtiness, male braggadocio, sweeping classical movement and folk-dance playfulness, delivered with a strong sense of individual character. Laura Morera amusingly tries and fails to snag a partner; meanwhile, Alexander Campbell and Marianela Núñez find a sublime synthesis with the music in a stand-out duet. Delicious.