LONDON — The stirring sounds of Elgar’s Cello Concerto rise from the orchestra pit in an opening scene of a new production by the Royal Ballet, “The Cellist.” The ballerina in the title role settles into position with her instrument: a male dancer, dressed in brown tones. She grips his upstretched arm as if it were the neck of a cello and makes sweeping gestures across his back, as if moving a bow.
This rapturous musical union is suddenly interrupted, as the cellist collapses onstage, then rubs her hands, trying to chase away the numbness. Soon, her hands begin to quiver intermittently, as do her legs. Playing the instrument becomes impossible. Her human cello tries to revive her musical powers, as does her husband, who has been conducting from a nearby podium. They wrap themselves around her in a desperate embrace. But her musical career is permanently over.
Choreographed by Cathy Marston for the Royal Ballet, “The Cellist” tells the story of two highly gifted musicians: cellist Jacqueline du Pré, considered one of the instrument’s finest musicians, and her husband, star conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim.
The two met in London in 1966 and married the next year, performing and recording together nonstop and forming one of the most memorable couples in classical music.
But multiple sclerosis cut short du Pré’s career. At a 1973 concert at Lincoln Center in New York, she went onstage “not knowing what G was, where C was, and not knowing what sounds were going to come out and how I’d find them,” she later recalled. It was to be her last performance. She died 14 years later, at age 42.
“It’s very sad, in many respects, but I also wanted to make it a celebration,” Marston said in an interview at the Royal Opera House. “She has this life force that everyone you speak to conveys, somehow, and it goes on.
“I made it really clear from the beginning that I’m not interested in the gossip-mongering,” she added, referring to books and a movie that focused on du Pré’s private life with Barenboim. “This is not a biography. It’s dance; it’s wordless; it’s emotional.”
Lauren Cuthbertson, the principal dancer playing du Pré, said she did a lot of research into the life and personality of the cellist to be able to translate her story into body language and described her as a “magnetic performer” who “looked truly possessed with where she was with the music.”
“Jackie is an icon, and I think that’s something that I remembered the whole way through,” the ballerina said. “She wasn’t just an average player; she was an incredible cellist. She wasn’t a little bit smiley and sweet; she was really smiley. Everything she felt, she felt in the extreme.”
She described the human cello in the production — danced by Marcelino Sambé — as “a wonderful bridge” between the characters of the cellist and the conductor. The instrument “really isn’t displayed in that kind of ‘Fantasia,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast’ way, where there’s a Disney-like cello with a smiley face on it,” she explained.
The ballet came about when Marston was approached by Kevin O’Hare, director of the Royal Ballet, to propose ideas for a new production. Marston discussed the matter with her sister, a drama teacher, who had found an old cello in her classroom and asked her students to do physical theater improvisations with it, a concept that had proved interesting.
Marston herself, in a ballet she had previously choreographed, had asked one of the group dancers to impersonate a cello, and it worked. So she came up with the idea of adapting the life of du Pré for the stage.
The idea was all the more relevant because the choreographer’s mother, who was born in the same year as du Pré, learned she had multiple sclerosis a decade ago. She acted as a consultant on the project. The ballet was a way to “come to terms” with her own mother’s condition, Marston said.
Before any work began, however, the choreographer traveled to Berlin to meet with Barenboim. She did not want to go ahead “without getting his blessing, so to speak,” she said. He was surprised that someone should want to make a ballet about the life of his late wife, she recalled, but was “totally behind our idea” and was fine with being depicted as a conductor, even though his musical interactions with du Pré were mainly as a pianist.
Barenboim observed the 30th anniversary of his first wife’s death in October 2017 with a tribute concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London. “The greatest musical joy was to play together with her,” he recalled in an interview at the time. “I think we complemented each other. She had an abandon that was very contagious, and I loved it.”
Dancer Matthew Ball said it was “quite intimidating” to play Barenboim, a conductor now in his 70s, at the pinnacle of his classical music career.
“He’s a titan of the music world and over his long-established career has set many precedents,” Ball said.
He approached the role by focusing on Barenboim “at a slightly more innocent time,” when he was “finding his voice as a conductor and as a musical icon,” he said. “Then I can relate it back to myself more easily: I’m an ambitious young man, and I want to do well for myself and work hard, and I’m passionate about my art. These are similarities.”
The specially composed musical score for “The Cellist” is by Philip Feeney, but it contains recognizable segments of the music that du Pré performed in her lifetime: the Elgar concerto, her signature piece, but also works by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Gabriel Fauré, Felix Mendelssohn and Ludwig van Beethoven. Live performances of the ballet end Wednesday, but theaters worldwide will have screenings into August.
Newly created ballets with a strong storyline — and particularly biographical ones — are uncommon.
“Often, more contemporary dance fits into an abstract box, and it doesn’t necessarily tell a very clear story, even if it does have a story of some sense,” Ball explained. “This is quite clear narrative, and a biography, if you will, of Jacqueline du Pré, or some aspects of her life.”
Cuthbertson defended the genre. Narrative ballets “touch people’s hearts, touch the artists,” she said. “Stories draw me in, so I’m thrilled to be telling the story.”
She said the piece did have elements of sentimentality about it, “but I hope it will also be a great piece of dance.”