In Cathy Marston’s ballet The Cellist, which explores Jacqueline du Pré’s passionate love affair with music, the connection between the cello and the cellist is made flesh in unforgettable fashion. It’s a memorable idea for a ballet and I defy you to remain unmoved when the cello and cellist must part. And why not seize the opportunity to watch the New York City Ballet perform George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Akram Khan in Xenos – his final offering as a solo dancer.
This is such a wonderful, powerful, memorable idea for a ballet. Cathy Marston’s The Cellist, made for The Royal Ballet early this year, takes as its subject the passionate love affair between a woman and her music, and what a woman. The artist is Jacqueline du Pré, whose brilliance and vivacity brought serious music to a broad audience in the 1960s. She was a superstar for about a decade and then came the appalling illness – multiple sclerosis – that took music from her. She was only 28 when she had to leave the stage.
Marston astutely positions her work somewhere between biography and the larger, less specific world of allusion and emotional resonance. We first see The Cellist – no personal names are used for the characters – as a child, enchanted by her instrument. There are loving family members and fellow music students but dancers also embody gramophones and the cabinets that hold them. The cello is embodied too, unforgettably. It becomes a living, breathing partner to The Cellist and is Marston’s greatest inspiration. The connection between player and cello is made flesh and the interactions between Lauren Cuthbertson and Marcelino Sambé, on whom the roles were created, are intensely intimate and moving.
Sambé is the constant observer as The Cellist matures, has success and falls in love with The Conductor (Matthew Ball). As music-lovers are aware, Du Pré’s musical partnership with Daniel Barenboim was very much grounded in their playing together and there is a charming, relatively brief scene in which he is seen as a pianist. It was undoubtedly easier to portray conducting but when Ball is required to be at the helm of a performance the effect is less than convincing. Marston also somewhat overdoes the bowing movements early in the piece. Once we have the idea it seems too specific, prosaic even, to keep repeating the gesture. It’s much more compelling to see Cuthbertson and Sambé’s bodies merge.
Philip Feeney’s score is a huge success, incorporating big themes from some of Du Pré’s best known repertoire into a coherent and new whole. Obviously Elgar’s Cello Concerto in D Minor is a key element but there is much more to recognise and enjoy.
There are terrific performances all round. Cuthbertson is thrilling and Sambé electrifying while there’s great support from Emma Lucano as the young instrumentalist; Kristen McNally, Thomas Whitehead and Anna Rose O’Sullivan as Mother, Father and Sister; and Gary Avis as an important teacher. It’s worth noting that the RB’s second rank, after Principals, is Principal Character Artists, among whom are McNally, Whitehead and Avis. It gives due weight to the experience and authority these senior dancers bring to the stage. McNally is just gorgeous as she tends to her daughter, bringing love and cardigans.
Marston’s ballet, running for a little over an hour, has some things one could quibble about. Well, she wouldn’t be Robinson Crusoe there. But I defy you to be unmoved by Sambé’s watchfulness as he increasingly sits apart from the action and his sorrow as he and The Cellist have to part. The Cellist really is a must-see. It’s available until July 6.
Two weeks ago I suggested a virtual trip to Finland to see Finnish National Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed by Jorma Elo (which you can see until November). I wrote then: “Perhaps taking a leaf from George Balanchine’s book, Elo covers most of the plot in the first act and makes the second a feast of dancing in celebration of love.”
Now you can see for yourself. New York’s Lincoln Center has an “at home” series in which one of the highlights is the Balanchine Dream. You can see it until July 14. Balanchine choreographed this full-length piece in 1962 for New York City Ballet, making it only two years older than Frederick Ashton’s one-act version made for The Royal Ballet, The Dream. The Balanchine and Ashton jostle for the title of best in show but I don’t think you need to pick one above the other. They look completely different and make often very different choices, but both are superb. Balanchine, as noted above, spent his first act on the story essentially as we know it from Shakespeare (which is what Ashton did) and then added a short second act of pure dance drenched in romance. Balanchine used, as everyone does, Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream with other Mendelssohn excerpts filling out the evening.
The performance being streamed was filmed in 1986 and stars NYCB luminaries of the time. Maria Calegari is a luminous, sensuous Titania and Jean-Pierre Frolich has just the right element of dark mischief for Puck. Ib Andersen is the elegant but detached Oberon. The lengthy second act pas deux, which is justly celebrated, is despatched with aplomb by Merrill Ashley and Adam Lüders.
How much you love the busy little flurries of children will depend on your taste for child dancers on the adult stage, but all reports suggest audiences are delighted wherever and whenever the ballet is staged. And really, the Richard III-style haircuts for the male lovers in the first act (think Laurence Olivier) are super-distracting. But nothing’s perfect, is it?
Also in the Lincoln Center At Home program is a mixed bill, American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House. It was filmed in 1978 and among its goodies are the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote with the dazzling Natalia Makarova and Fernando Bujones. Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov are the red-hot stars of Balanchine’s Theme and Variations and you can also see Michel Fokine’s Firebird and Les Sylphides.
Just quickly, Akram Khan’s 2018 solo work Xenos (which came to the Adelaide Festival in 2018) is available online until June 13. It’s a wrenching piece, set within the fractured mind of a soldier in the trenches of World War I. Khan’s unique use of the kathak dance of his Bangladeshi heritage in a contemporary context is rich and potent; the purpose to which it’s put is bleak. Will there ever be an end to war and the suffering it inflicts? I think we know the answer to that. Khan, now in his 40s, is a tremendously gifted choreographer and his work there continues, but he has decided to give his body the rest it has earned. Xenos was his final offering as a solo dancer.