“O body swayed by music, o brightening glance, how can we know the dancer from the dance” ; W.B Yeats words run through Cathy Marsden’s joyous ballet ‘The Cellist’, based on the life of Jacqueline du Pré and premiered in February 2020 at the Royal Opera House. Marsden describes it as a ‘tale of love and loss’, but the lover in question is unique in its form: the cello of du Pré.
The cello is the narrator of this story; dancer Marcelino Sambé rarely leaves the stage, just visible in the shadows, he perches on the curved wooden set as he watches every scene, a ‘meta-being’. Sambé embodies not only the instrument, but also the ‘spirit of music’, an ever-present, guiding figure who seems to physicalise and heighten Jackie’s emotional experiences and expression. This love story between instrument and player struck a chord: the chemistry (as portrayed by Lauren Cuthbertson – Jacqueline – and Sambé in the initial pas de deux) is instant. Marsden’s choreography is organic and flowing; lines and limbs are blurred in melting gestures and lifts that show a symbiotic relationship. Jackie breathes life into the cello, and it supports and guides her; not simply a vehicle, but a friend and equal.
The extraordinary ability of Jacqueline du Pré is well known. In March 1961, at the age of sixteen, she made her debut at the Wigmore Hall and the following year performed her most renowned piece, the Elgar cello Concerto in E minor, at the Royal Festival Hall. It is apparent that Jacqueline did not experience the struggle between technical capability and creative expression which most young players spend years trying to overcome. I, for one, am often painfully aware of the frustration that comes from feeling that your technique is always a step behind the emotion you’re trying to evoke. Jacqueline however seemed to experience this in reverse: after performing her first concert, she described how ‘a brick wall came down’, and she was finally able to communicate freely. Yet, cruelly, when most musicians are enjoying their prime, Jacqueline’s wall was irreversibly reinstated in the form of Multiple Sclerosis.
The playful freedom of du Pré is initially revealed as ‘young Jackie’ in the teasing cat-and-mouse scene with her sister. The two students from the Royal Ballet lower school weave in and out of each other, passing around the vinyl record – a key motif and prop – before Jackie presses play. Elgar’s rich opening motif fills the space, performed in the pit by Royal Academy of Music alumni, cellist Hetty Snell. Jackie is instantly captivated, ‘bright eyes’ and body alive with the melody that would come to shape her life and legacy. In researching for the article, I interviewed cellists at RAM, and was struck by the parallels in their first experiences of du Pré and her most famous recordings. First year undergraduate cellist, Gloria Kim, recalls her mother frequently playing a recording of the Elgar around the house when she was eight years old. Jessica Abrahams, also first year Undergraduate, paints a similar picture: Jacqueline’s Dvorak was the first cello recording she ever heard, as her grandparents played it softly in the background when she visited to entice her into picking up the instrument.
The ballet is an homage to the cello; Philip Feeney’s moving score is a patchwork of the instrument’s most famous composers, featuring Elgar, Mendelssohn, Fauré, Piatti, Schubert and Rachmaninoff. The set, designed by Hildegard Bechtler, resembles the inside of the cello, and the vinyl records represent sound waves. Marsden describes Sambé as ‘visual music’- ‘it oozes out of him’- and explains that her first port of call was to explore the ‘human cello’ positions in ballet (and discovered many!). The curves of the instrument are easily likened to an anthropic shape, and its timbre is widely deemed to share the best similarity with the human voice, and thus is very appealing.
Du Pré is renowned for her youthful exuberance and disregard for the rules; she re-interpreted many of the standard markings in the Elgar and Dvorak, to the extent that cello master Rostropovich declared ‘it’s all wrong, but don’t change a thing’. Jackie moved an unconventional amount when playing, which is partly why her character translates easily to dance, and is even more heart-breaking to watch as she develops Multiple Sclerosis; Cuthbertson portrays the debilitating effects to a body and mind that once moved with so much organic vitality. In 1971, Jacqueline noticed a loss of sensitivity in her fingers, which then spread to other parts of her body; she was diagnosed with MS in October 1973 and was forced to stop performing at age 28. Perhaps the most poignant moment in the piece is when Cuthbertson raises her arm to bow, only for her hand to shake uncontrollably; the orchestra falls silent and there is an uncomfortably long pause as Jackie slowly lowers her trembling hand, in which it sinks in for the audience and du Pré that she can never perform again.
Yet, in that painful moment, young Jackie wanders on stage clutching a record: the enduring legacy of a remarkable woman, still considered one of the best cellists of all time, famous for the unprecedented ferocity and emotional intensity in which she attacked the music. The ‘smiley’ girl is frozen in time, unaware that her mark on the musical landscape changed the way that cellists today approach their most famous repertoire. RAM cellists Jessica and Gloria both described that Jacqueline inspired them, as female cellists, to make a ‘powerful sound’. What I take away most is her enduring sense of mischief and her cheeky grin; making music is, after all, meant to be fun.