Not my cup of tea: Dances at a Gathering / The Cellist at the ROH
Dances at a Gathering / The Cellist
Royal Opera House
Amphitheatre A38, £17
28 February 2020
As with the new Isadora-inspired work UNDA at the Barbican last week, I can see many strengths to Cathy Marston’s new work for the Royal Ballet, The Cellist, inspired by the life of Jacqueline Du Pré. And nor do I really begrudge it the positive reception it has enjoyed. But I can roundly confirm it not to be my cup of tea, nor, to my mind, a favourable companion to Jerome Robbins’s lovely Dances at a Gathering – and nor something I can imagine audiences returning to in years to come.
Let’s start with the strengths. Marston is an elegant dance-maker, and she has a large fleet of almost preposterously elegant dancers at her command. The enchainement is always fluid and attractive. The writing for corps, even if narratively vague, is always visually pleasing. The storytelling is on the whole articulate, the exceptions being more, I suspect, the bulk-inducing need to make the most of the Royal Ballet commission than a lack of clarity on Marston’s part. The dancing is throughout superb, even barring a few second-cast nerves within the lead trio of Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Matthew Ball and Calvin Richardson, and even barring Richardson’s creepy moustache. I want also to single out the fleeting pleasures offered by the enormous cast, including Christina Arestis, Gary Avis, Ashley Dean and Thomas Whitehead in bit-parts, and the impressive Emma Lucano from the Royal Ballet School.
However. The music, by Philip Feeney, is no doubt for many absolutely harmless enough, but is objectively total snoresville: a bland, television-drama-soundtrack nonentity that gratingly must incorporate famous sound bites from famous cello works. This naff score did not provide the impetus I needed to overcome an instinct that a human being pretending to be a cello (especially one with a creepy moustache ) is silly – and that other human beings pretending repeatedly to play the ‘cello’, or alternatively to mime, beautifully but also grotesquely, what it is to play an actual cello, is even more silly.
But say I had been able to put aside my prejudice. What is it that Marston does with this instrument, as so registered in the credits? As well as being a literal cello Richardson in some way represents the experience of listening to music, as in a repeated motif where he lifts the sitting Stix-Brunell by her ears and swings her around a bit (it looks better than it sounds). He must also be something like the spirit of music, passed between generations by the magic of the record. Uncharitably he might also be read as some kind of divine touch, a gift dropped in Du Pré’s lap without her having to do anything at all – making her a human vessel for that spirit of music to make manifest itself on earth.
What happens when Du Pré’s illness sets in? She pushes away the cello, apparent cause of her pain, and the frustrated Barenboim. She passes quickly from tremors attractively shivering her limbs to a final immobility (I guess the in-between bits are hard to do in ballet). From this end Richardson sallies forth to lift a new young girl by her ears and swing her round a bit. I don’t know enough about the real Du Pré’s final years to know if this is a fair representation; perhaps it is. But as it is it feels wretchedly melodramatic, and distastefully beautifying of the progress of a horrible disease. I know, I know: realism and ballet are rarely obvious partners. But ballet and psychological truth can certainly go hand in hand; and here I felt only emotional manipulation.
Ah well. Better to rest on the unchallenging pleasures of Dances at a Gathering – unchallenging for the audience, that is. This really is something of a brutal ballet, leaving the 10 principals completely exposed over a long duration. Not all of this cast is entirely up to the task: a slip from Sarah Lamb in her stilted partnering with Reece Clarke; a great trembling from James Hay as he lifted Meaghan Grace Hinkis; an occasional and perhaps inevitable parting of musical ways when more than one couple took the stage; pianist Rob Clarke’s perfunctory performance. But these are most uncharitable complaints in what is a very pleasing ballet, its deftly American and characterful choreography perfectly tuned to the wilful oddities of the Chopin, topped here by some glorious performances particularly from Marcelino Sambé, Mayara Magri and Tierney Heap.