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The Cellist
Choreography by Cathy Marston
Music by Philip Feeney, after Elgar, Beethoven, Fauré, Mendelssohn, Piatti, Rachmaninoff and Schubert
The cellist: Lauren Cuthbertson, The instrument: Marcelino Sambé, The conductor: Matthew Ball, The cellist as a young girl: Emma Lucano, Her sister as a young girl: Lauren Godfrey, Her mother: Kristen McNally, Her father: Thomas Whitehead, Her sister: Anna Rose O’Sullivan, Her cello teachers: Gary Avis, Nicol Edmonds and Benjamin Ella, Her musical friends: Luca Acri, Paul Kay and Joseph Sissens
Artists of the Royal Ballet
Students of the Royal Ballet School
Hetty Snell (cello)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Andrea Molino
Dances At A Gathering
Choreography by Jerome Robbins
Music by Fryderyk Chopin
Pink: Marianela Nuñez, Mauve: Francesca Hayward, Apricot: Yasmine Naghdi, Green: Laura Morera, Blue: Fumi Kaneko, Brown: Alexander Campbell, Purple: Federico Bonelli, Green: William Bracewell, Brick: Luca Acri, Blue: Valentino Zucchetti
Robert Clark (piano)
Directed for the screen by Ross MacGibbon
rec. the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 15 and 17 February 2020
Picture: 1080i High Definition
Audio formats: LPCM 2.0 and dts-HD Master Audio
All regions
OPUS ARTE Blu-Ray OABD7277D [147 mins]

Dances at a gathering and The cellist don’t necessarily make an obvious coupling. While the Royal Ballet first danced the former as long ago as 1970, the latter was premiered as recently as February last year. It’s also something of a struggle to link the respective choreographers. While Jerome Robbins pursued a very varied career that encompassed ballet, Broadway and Hollywood, Cathy Marston has followed a narrower path, choosing to work, so far at least, almost exclusively with dance companies. The dissimilarities also extend to the ballets themselves. Robbins was adamant that Dances at a gathering is an abstract piece, clarifying to Ballet Review in 1972 that “There are no stories… There are no plots and no roles”. Marston, on the other hand, sees narrative as key to her work, with her own website declaring that “For Cathy, stories inform dance”. Thus, The cellist, for instance, is based on the life of a real-life and much-loved figure, Jacqueline du Pré.

While, consequently, the pairing of these two works may be somewhat unexpected, this new Royal Ballet release undeniably demonstrates two of the current company’s most significant characteristics – its adventurous programming and the strength in depth that allows it to tackle an impressively wide variety of repertoire.

The title Dances at a gathering remains something of a mystery, for, given that the purpose of the eponymous gathering is never shown or explained, it might just have sensibly have been called simply Dances. But while, as already noted, Jerome Robbins was insistent that the piece had no story to it, he was, it seems, equally determined that it should be executed by dancers with individual personalities. We are therefore confronted with a somewhat paradoxical situation in which, even though the on-stage characters don’t do anything as such, we are simultaneously encouraged to appreciate the particular manner in which they aren’t actually doing it.

Dances at a gathering brings various combinations of dancers onto an appropriately bare stage. There are dances, in turn, for soloists, for several couples, for two women and a man, for three men and two women, for three men and three women and all sorts of other permutations. While there’s lots of vivacious flirting from the women and plenty of testosterone-fuelled showing-off from the men, the atmosphere is essentially one of light-hearted, wide-eyed innocence, somewhat reminiscent of the mood of August Bournonville’s delightful showpiece Flower festival in Genzano. In fact, balletomanes whose interest lies mainly in the 19th century classical repertoire – or whose favourite ballet is history’s very first plot-less creation Les sylphides - will certainly appreciate Robbins’s frequent nods to Marius Petipa and the imperial Russian tradition along with a degree of choreographic conservatism that’s an enchanting match to Chopin’s music, played here in an accomplished, idiomatic live performance by Robert Clark.

Dances at a gathering is, as dancer Marianela Nuñez observes in an accompanying short video feature, “a proper team work” and it demonstrates a characteristic of the current Royal Ballet company to which I made earlier reference – its strength in depth. Even though only ten dancers feature in the piece, regular viewers of the Royal Ballet’s live or recorded performances will recognise them all as some of Covent Garden’s most consistently talented artists, whether experienced stalwarts such as Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli or rising stars of the future. None puts either a literal or a metaphorical foot wrong during the whole performance. This is, all in all, a superb ensemble performance.

I suspect, however, that the main interest for many of this release’s prospective buyers will be Cathy Marston’s The cellist, so, given that most MusicWeb readers will not yet have seen this new production, I will devote a little space to its story, set to a skilfully constructed score “by Philip Feeney, after Elgar, Beethoven, Fauré, Mendelssohn, Piatti, Rachmaninoff and Schubert”. The curtain rises to reveal Hildegard Bechtler’s cleverly conceived stage set, appropriately replicating the interior contours of the body of a cello, with its curved spaces providing the setting for various scenes in du Pré’s life. As a child, Jacqueline delights over the arrival at the family home of the latest Paul Tortelier LP, a recording of the very Elgar cello concerto that was to figure so significantly in her own later life. That brief scene introduces two striking characteristics of The cellist. Firstly, we see the cleverly executed deployment of some of the other dancers as inanimate props, including a gramophone and a sitting room standard lamp. Secondly, we see Jacqueline’s initial physical interaction with her Stradivarius cello, given human form by dancer Marcelino Sambé. Encouraged by her mother, we soon find the young cellist, portrayed as an adult by Lauren Cuthbertson, rejecting her school lessons in favour of cello practice, before being discovered by a succession of teachers. Thereafter she falls quickly in love (to the strains, inevitably of the Elgar concerto) with “the conductor”, danced by Matthew Ball - even if we all know that, at that stage of his career, Daniel Barenboim was still a pianist. Following her marriage, Jacqueline is quickly exhausted and alienated by her new lifestyle as a high-profile musical superstar. Moreover, on returning to the family home she discovers that she is suffering from terminal multiple sclerosis. Her ability to perform is increasingly compromised and, as she approaches death, she recalls her childhood and her beloved cello.

As that simplified synopsis suggests, The cellist focuses its attention heavily on two roles – that of the cellist herself and that of her instrument – and it is hard to imagine that any dancers surpassing the performances of Lauren Cuthbertson and Marcelino Sambé. Of course, the fact that this production was a world premiere means that comparisons – whether of particular performances or, indeed, of Cathy Marston’s choreography which speaks an individual, though easily accessible, language of its own – are impossible. Nevertheless, this simply feels like a class Royal Ballet production to which the greatest levels of preparation and care have been devoted. While it has long been apparent that Ms Cuthbertson is a most accomplished dancer, here it is just as much her acting ability that underpins an utterly moving performance. Meanwhile, Mr Sambé’s physical flexibility makes him a superb partner, wrapping himself closely around Cuthbertson’s body as her virtually inseparable cello. Matthew Ball, portraying Daniel Barenboim, enjoys somewhat less time on stage but makes a very positive impact, especially in a romantic pas de deux. The other cast members also acquit themselves admirably and I especially enjoyed the contributions of Kristen McNally as Jacqueline’s mother and Emma Lucano who portrays the cellist as a child. The Covent Garden orchestra, under the direction of Andrea Molino, lends expert support and the spirit of intense poignancy that soloist Hetty Snell brings to the Elgar concerto effectively augments the drama and ramps up the emotion on stage.

The pleasure that this release gives is further enhanced by Ross MacGibbon’s typically skilful direction for video, with the dancers shown to fine effect in both productions. My copy of the Blu-ray disc reproduced both the visual image and the sound at the highest quality. Neither of these ballets is terribly well known to a wide audience and so authoritative booklet notes by ballet historian Zoë Anderson and dance critic Judith Mackrell are particularly welcome, as are the useful – if unimaginatively titled and frustratingly short – extra features entitled Why the Royal Ballet love performing Dances at a gathering and Why the Royal Ballet love performing The cellist. I am certain, however, that it will not only be the company members who enjoy these two productions. Their many admirers need not hesitate to acquire a copy.

Rob Maynard

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