The week in dance: The Cellist/Dances at a Gathering; Message in a Bottle – review

Royal Opera House; Peacock theatre, London
Jacqueline du Pré’s life story is translated into a powerfully affecting ballet by Cathy Marston, while Kate Prince defies the odds with a refugee crisis hip-hop drama set to the songs of Sting

Give a woman a stage and she will fill it with power and emotion. That’s the message of a week that saw two major premieres of new dance pieces by women choreographers that both made their mark.

Cathy Marston has waited long enough for her chance. She’s been associated with the Royal Ballet for 25 years, but The Cellist is the first time she’s been trusted to create for the main stage. It is a considerable piece, full of feeling and imagination, lingering in the mind long after the curtain has come down.

In dramatising the life of Jacqueline du Pré (1945-87), the gifted, charismatic cellist who made classical music sexy and vibrant for an entire generation before being struck down by multiple sclerosis at the age of 28, Marston decides to do something very difficult. She makes the central relationship of Du Pré’s life not that with her husband, the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, but with music itself – embodied in the form of her cello.

Marcelino Sambé is cast as “the instrument” – no one is named in the cast sheet – who also “narrates” the ballet as a kind of musical fantasy. When he first appears, placed between the knees of a young cellist (lively, lovely Emma Lucano), arm elegantly curved like the cello’s neck, I thought it was all a bit music- and-movementy – a throwback to the kind of ballets that Hollywood films of the 1940s liked to imagine.

Marcelino Sambé, Lauren Cuthbertson and Matthew Ball in Cathy Marston’s The Cellist.
‘Full of feeling and imagination’: (from top) Marcelino Sambé, Lauren Cuthbertson and Matthew Ball in Cathy Marston’s The Cellist. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

But the conceit takes hold, thanks in part to Sambé’s impassioned dancing, and to Marston’s choreography, which bends, swerves and swirls as the adult cellist – danced by Lauren Cuthbertson – leans into the sound of the classical hits that Du Pré made her own, woven into an effective score by Philip Feeney. The movement is all circular, a great onward rush of love and passion that evolves into a trio when Matthew Ball’s dashing “conductor” joins the dance, stretching, turning and leaping in slim, sensual lines.

There is slightly too much going on in too small a space. Hildegard Bechtler’s set, which conjures the lines of a cello, pinions the dancers into tight curves; it’s deliberate but frustrating. A large chorus of supporting dancers takes many parts, sometimes coyly mimicking objects of furniture, sometimes sweeping around the principals. It sometimes works beautifully, as when they arch around Du Pré as the framing instruments in an orchestra (solo cello, Hetty Snell, in the pit, playing Elgar beautifully).

But it’s often distracting. The moments that work best are when the elaboration stops and the dancers have time to sketch a feeling – when Kristen McNally’s mother swaddles her daughter in a cardigan, when Cuthbertson soars in ecstasy, and – most affectingly – when she begins to stagger and fall, unable to play, her movements becoming ugly, disjointed and finally still. Sambé gently kisses her hand as he unfolds away from her; a moment of utter sorrow.

Francesca Hayward, William Bracewell, Marianela Nunez, Federico Bonelli, Yasmine Naghdi and Valentino Zucchetti in Dances at a Gathering.
Francesca Hayward, William Bracewell, Marianela Nuñez, Federico Bonelli, Yasmine Naghdi and Valentino Zucchetti in Dances at a Gathering. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

The evening opened with more elusive emotions, in a revival of Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, a sequence of glorious dances to the solo piano pieces of Chopin (magnificently performed by Robert Clark), beautifully performed by the entire cast, with Marianela Nuñez, Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi in particular finding just the right way to communicate its breezy mysteries.

Over at the Peacock theatre, choreographer Kate Prince is attempting something even more difficult than Marston. In Message in a Bottle, she has created a popular dance show about the tragedy of the refugee crisis, told through hip-hop dance and the songs of Sting. It sounds improbable, and there were moments towards the beginning when I wondered if she could pull it off. There is a lot vigorous dancing in the cypher to establish a sense of community before a family are split apart by war, and the songs (rearranged by Hamilton’s Alex Lacamoire and sometimes sung by guest vocalists) can feel dragged into the action. (Don’t Stand Too Close to Me makes a particularly uneasy background to a scene in which women are threatened with sexual violence.)

But gradually the piece finds its emotional punch, carving space for passages of expressive, almost abstract dance, as it also finds ways of charting the separate fates of two brothers and their sister to a narrative line created with the help of playwright Lolita Chakrabarti. It helps that they are danced with incredible skill and commitment by Natasha Gooden, Lukas McFarlane and Tommy Franzén, whose weightless fluidity enables him to make even the smallest gesture speak volumes.

Kate Prince’s Message in a Bottle at the Peacock theatre.
‘Quite an achievement’: Kate Prince’s Message in a Bottle at the Peacock theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

But Prince is also clever at shaping her narrative in compelling ways. There’s a brilliant scene of a raft wrecked on a pounding ocean, conjured by projections, with the orange life jackets of the dancers bobbing in the darkness; a rousing plea for freedom set in an internment camp (to the title song); duets of love and estrangement, and above all, a tentatively optimistic close when Sting’s voice soars in They Dance Alone. It’s quite an achievement to bring so complex a subject to the dance stage in this way.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Cellist/Dances at a Gathering ★★★★
Message in a Bottle ★★★★

• The Cellist/Dances at a Gathering is at the Royal Opera House until Wednesday 4 March


Sarah Crompton

The GuardianTramp

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