By Norm Robins
This ballet, choreographer Cathy Marston’s first for the Royal Ballet on their main stage, is a beautiful, poignant, touching look at the life of cellist Jacqueline du Pré. Du Pré was smitten at a very young age by the cello and fatally smitten at age 42 by multiple sclerosis (MS). This ballet is her story.
She was born in England on January 26, 1945. At age 4 she heard a cello on the radio and asked her mother for “one of those”. Her mother, an accomplished pianist, bought her one and tutored her for the first year. At age 5 she began her studies at the London Violincello School. One of her teachers was legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in 1966. He said of her, she was “the only cellist of the younger generation that could equal and overtake his own achievement.” Rostropovich was long on talent, short on humility.
So why ballet? Every art form has its unique voice and its unique vocabulary. Ballet, without the need to be translated from one language to another, can make our emotions soar or plummet, can make us joyful or tearful, in ways staged plays, orchestral music, and opera cannot. They all do those things but each in its own way. Only ballet uses the motions of the human body along with music to say what it has to say.
The ballet shows us young Jacqueline danced by Lauren Godfrey being introduced to the cello danced, yes danced, by Marcelino Sambé and falling in love with it. It shows us the agony her parents go through on finding out she has MS. It shows her as a young woman danced by the Company’s prima ballerina Lauren Cuthbertson.
Jacqueline falls in love with conductor Argentinian-born Israeli Daniel Barenboim. She converts to Judaism, and they marry at the Western Wall of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Their initial pas de deux isn’t a pas de deux at all. It is a pas de trois, Jacqueline, Daniel, and her cello. On their honeymoon, however, they dance a pas de deux with her cello sitting it out on a bench upstage.
Then she gets sick and can no longer play. She rejects her cello, but her cello will not be rejected. It insists on being attached to her. This is so very beautifully danced by Lauren and Marcelino.
A word of explanation is in order: Much of Jacqueline’s dancing is done with her feet spread apart, an ungainly thing for a ballerina. However, if she is to be believable as a cellist, she must do that. That’s how cellists play.
The music is a composite of some of the most moving and powerful cello music of Elgar, Beethoven, Fauré, Mendelssohn, Piatti, Rachmaninoff, and Schubert. Composer Philip Feeney has assembled them into an exquisite score that is an homage to the cello, perhaps even his own personal love affair with the instrument.
The end is tragic and pulls mightily at your heartstrings. It is not a soprano’s death in an Italian opera. It isn’t magnificent. It isn’t filled with high drama. It is slow and tortured and pathetic. If you want to spend a little over an hour watching something that is sublime, that borders on the religious this is it. In my humble opinion this is a beautiful ballet. It isn’t the most spectacular. It isn’t the most thrilling. It doesn’t have the breathtaking leaps and twirls that some others do. It is simply the most touching, most beautiful ballet I have ever seen.
It can also be seen on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDdo6P8LnFE&t=2352s