Jann Parry sees The Royal Ballet's double bill with Valentino Zucchetti's Anemoi and Cathy Marston's The Cellist
|Title||Anemoi / The Cellist|
|Company||The Royal Ballet|
|Venue||The Royal Opera House, London|
|Date||20 October 2023|
Anemoi is a whirlwind of a ballet for 16 up-and-coming dancers of the Royal Ballet. Valentino Zucchetti started creating it during gaps in the pandemic lockdowns, working out his ideas with youngsters still in the corps. He was encouraged to develop it into a 25-minute work in 2021, making full use of the pent-up energy of dancers freed from confinement. Many of his original cast have since become soloists or first artists, bursting with confidence as they whirl around the main stage in the golden glow of Simon Bennison's lighting.
The title (pronounced anemee) refers to the gods of the winds in Greek mythology who bring in the seasons. Zucchetti has set the gusts of his choreography to a selection of music by Rachmaninoff, in turn turbulent, breezy, and romantic. The men get the boisterous passages, the women the lighter orchestration; Leticia Dias is the exception as a stormy north wind. She is a force in her own right, leader of her retinue of followers. She is paired with Taisuke Nakao, who devours the stage in virtuoso leaps.
The central couple, Mariko Sasaki and Lukas B. Braendsrød, come and go until they take over in a grand pas towards the end. They must be benign winds, heralding spring and summer. Lifts are ingenious, needing intricate handholds as she flies around and above him. Pairs of dancers form a frieze behind them in silhouette, calm at last in the final section. Until then, the corps has been busy, eddying in waves or surging as windblown grass. Each dancer is briefly given a chance to be the centre of attention before being swept away by the next invasion. Zucchetti challenges his cast of youngsters to display their hard-won classical technique, regained and polished post-lockdown. Anemoi is breathtaking to watch, albeit conventional in its presentation of female corps members as winsome and mischievous, while the men are unabashedly vigorous.
Cathy Marston‘s premise in The Cellist (2020) is that it is not a biographical account of the musician Jaqueline Du Pré but a tragic tale told through the memory of an antique cello. For me, it is counter-intuitive to cast a dancer whose highly trained body is already an instrument for interpreting music as someone needing another instrument to express herself – a dancer as the embodiment of a wooden cello. Costumed in brown, Marcelino Sambé kneels, impassive, left arm raised as the cello's neck, as Lauren Cuthbertson mimes bowing round his body. Then he takes off as a sinuous, magical being, freer in his movements than she is. Her choreographic motif is the seated stance of a cellist, legs splayed, feet flexed. When she dances on pointe, Cuthbertson implies that her character is highly-strung, not at ease with herself without the cello.
As well as representing the spirit of the music she plays, the cello experiences human emotions. He must seduce her as she develops as a musician to give him a ‘voice'; he feels jealous and rejected when she finds a lover; he suffers when she is disabled – but is he suffering with her or lamenting that he has lost a gifted partner? The cello's role diminishes once she can no longer play him, so Sambé becomes an enigma, half-hidden towards the back of the stage.
The story is indeed that of Du Pré, a great cellist who was struck down in her twenties by multiple sclerosis. Jackie is not named in the cast list: she is simply The Cellist, and her lover/husband is The Conductor, though he is very evidently Daniel Barenboim. The cello, described as The Instrument, is presumably a Stradivarius (Du Pré had two loaned to her in succession). The busy corps, described as a chorus of narrators, take on many roles as students, musicians, concert audience fans, wedding guests and household furniture – a tea table, a standard lamp, a record player for her LPs.
Jackie's journey with the cello is marked by minor characters – her family, her music teachers, a merry trio of string players who represent members of the chamber group performing Schubert's ‘Trout' quintet, memorably filmed by the late Christopher Nupen. Jackie is at her happiest, in love with the group's pianist, Daniel Barenboim. His arrival is a seismic moment in the ballet. Matthew Ball makes him a dangerously attractive Svengali, a controlling conductor who manipulates Jackie as his instrument. She wraps herself around him in the love duet after their marriage, revelling in sexual pleasure. The cello can only watch, supplanted. Her delight is soon sapped by exhaustion as The Conductor obliges her to tour, her cello now an encumbrance.
Jackie's collapse recalls Giselle's mad scene as she realises she has been betrayed – by her own body, the onset of multiple sclerosis. Cuthbertson reveals her considerable abilities as an actress as Jackie struggles against the debilitating disease, hoping against hope that she can still play her cello. The termination of her career is poignantly depicted as the musician/dancer loses her ability to move. Marston and Cuthbertson show their understanding and compassion for her plight. As darkness falls, the cello spins away, in search of another partner to give him new life.
Marston's storytelling is effective, incongruous though her premise is. The ballet is buoyed by Philip Feeney's score, weaving in music by different composers that Du Pré played so passionately. Hetty Snell, cellist in the Royal Opera House Orchestra (and a valued guest elsewhere) takes on the impressive solo role of evoking Du Pre's playing, wringing our hearts. The high points in Marston's choreography are the meshing of bodies and emotions in the pas de deux for cellist and cello, and the pas de trois with Jackie, Barenboim and Sambé as the cello – an extraordinary combination of talents. The Cellist is essentially a chamber piece, a fantasy ballet with underdeveloped minor roles and an over-active corps and set.
Jann Parry, former dance critic of The Observer (1983-2004), has written for many publications as a freelance, and has contributed to radio and TV documentaries about dancers.
She is the author of the award-winning biography Different Drummer, the life of Kenneth MacMillan (2009).