It’s a brave choice to make a ballet about Jacqueline du Pré. Cathy Marston’s first work for the Covent Garden main stage succeeds in paying sensitive tribute to the enormity of du Pré’s talent and the cruelty of her demise, eschewing a straightforward biography or the swirling accusations of adultery and betrayal, which are well known from the film Hilary and Jackie, based on a book by her siblings.
Instead, Marston’s The Cellist shapes a richly metaphorical love story between a musician (Lauren Cuthbertson) and her instrument. There’s no phoney air-cello here. Marcelino Sambé dances the role of Jackie’s ‘Davydov’ Strad, with scrolling spools of movement that turn his limbs and body into finely curlicued luthiery, the proud bearing of his chest beautifully suggestive of the instrument’s shapeliness and burnished quality.
He’s embraced by and bears his player aloft – his expansive duets with Cuthbertson’s spontaneous and swaying Jackie evoke a genuinely moving sense of untrammelled joy in music-making. Meanwhile Matthew Ball is a dynamic, darting presence as the Husband (pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim).
As in her other ballets, Marston makes clever use of the corps as a kind of surging Greek chorus, shifting the curved walls and chairs of Hildegard Bechtler’s evocative set into concert halls and hospital rooms. Philip Feeney’s score stylishly weaves sections of du Pré’s famous repertoire (including the Elgar concerto) into his own composition. Completing the bill is Jerome Robbins’ nostalgic and witty Dances at a Gathering, set to a selection of Chopin waltzes and mazurkas winningly played by Rob Clark.