Upstairs and downstairs, in the main house and in the smaller Linbury theatre, the Royal Ballet is exploring what narrative dance can do. Upstairs is having a rather better time of it. Cathy Marston’s The Cellist, created in 2020 and inspired by the tragic life of cellist Jacqueline du Pré, whose glorious talent was snuffed out by multiple sclerosis, blazes back to the stage, partly because of its central performance. Lauren Cuthbertson, returning from a second maternity leave, dances with astonishing freedom, filling the character both with the glory of her music-making and the unbearable sadness of her silence.
Marston’s cleverness, though, is to make the cello the heart of the story – and embody it in dance form. Marcelino Sambé’s lyricism makes the steps speak; he seems to stretch every muscle as he reaches towards Cuthbertson, shaping his arms in response to her movement, lifting her high in a musical embrace. As Du Pré’s husband, Daniel Barenboim, Matthew Ball can barely break them apart, but the thrill of their mutual music-making is also beautifully caught.
The Cellist (paired in a bill with Valentino Zucchetti’s attractive but anodyne Anemoi) trusts the dance to tell a story, paring away detail until its essence is revealed. Ironically The Limit, based on Sam Steiner’s play Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons and set in a dystopian world where everyone is only allowed to speak 140 words a day, doesn’t display the same rigour.
It was a slim play, and this version, created by director Ed Madden and choreographer Kristen McNally, doesn’t add much insight. It is classily performed by Alexander Campbell and Francesca Hayward, dressed in neutral casuals, to a plangent score by Isobel Waller-Bridge. Impressively, they speak as well as dance, the movement often mirrored, always elegant, full of delicate lifts and balances.
Less text might have yielded more drama; there’s something in the mix that constrains the piece. It’s all monochrome where it needs a splash of bold colour.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Cellist ★★★★
The Limit ★★★