Last night I attended a Royal Opera House Live screening at a local cinema (Pontio in Bangor). They were showing The Royal Ballet’s world premiere of Cathy Marston’s The Cellist, along with a performance of Jerome Robbin’s Dances at a Gathering.
This was my first time going to the cinema at Pontio. I’ve been avoiding it because photos make it look very lecture-like and not much like the dark, cozy atmosphere I want when watching films. I was pleasantly surprised by the space itself — stark but comfortable with the lights down and a large, well-placed screen. The seats were nothing near what I want for either a movie or theatre experience, though. Uncomfortable and the kind of stadium seating that’s all connected and wobbles every time someone in the row moves. They also have fold-out writing surfaces that definitely give it a lecture hall vibe.
Despite my feelings about the seating, it was an incredible experience. Not the same as attending a performance in person, but with the benefit of getting a close-up view of the performers. (I only wish it weren’t so close up at times, when the camera zoomed in on individual performers during a pas de deux or ensemble piece and left me wondering what else was happening on stage. But that was only occasional.) There was still a sense of immediacy, knowing that the performance was live, and many people in the cinema joined in the London audience’s applause.
The evening started with Dances at a Gathering, a plotless ballet set to music by Chopin. I haven’t previously connected with Robbins’ work very strongly, so I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this ballet. However, I was pleasantly surprised! The solo piano was gorgeous and each of the dancers brought personality and different qualities of movement to their roles, creating a sense of relationship and story in each piece.
But the real star of the evening was Cathy Marston’s new work, The Cellist, based on Jacqueline du Pre’s life. I already know Jacqueline du Pre’s exquisite cello playing (and sad story), and I’m deeply in love with Elgar’s Cello Concerto, which I was pleased to see featured. But there were so many things to enjoy in this performance: Lauren Cuthbertson’s emotional expressiveness and grace as Du Pre; the decision to embody the cello/music in its own role performed masterfully by Marcelino Sambé; the powerful Elgar scene with Matthew Ball “conducting” as Barenboim and a full orchestra of dancers playing out each section’s parts; the simple set pieces rotated to effectively change the setting and show the passage of time.
The one consistent critique I’ve read about this work is that at times there’s too much going on. To that, I can only say, “Pffffffft.” 😀 The corps does so much to set the scene, sometimes literally (embodying pieces of furniture) and at other times as Du Pre’s classmates, fellow musicians, adoring fans, and eventually her doctors. Does the stage sometimes get busy, with many different things happening at once? Yes, absolutely. And that’s a kind of choreography I enjoy that I see more often in modern dance than ballet — the sense that you can choose what part of the stage to focus on, that at times the principal dancers are there but not necessarily the focus of the action, that if you see the performance again and again you’ll always find something new.
Regardless of the individual elements of the performance, though, one of the most telling signs was that by the end I was crying. It was a hugely emotional piece that ripped me open and brought tears to my eyes repeatedly, even after leaving the cinema. Even today I can hardly stop thinking about it. If you have a chance to see The Royal Ballet performing this, do it! You can also get an inside view from this rehearsal and conversation, streamed live a few days before the performance: