The Royal Ballet: Anemoi, The Cellist

Royal Opera House, London
October 20, 2023

The Royal Ballet’s latest mixed programme sees the return of two recent one-act ballets, both created for the company, and both of which picked up the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards for Best Classical Choreography for their makers.

Created by The Royal Ballet’s Valentino Zucchetti in 2021, Anemoi is an intelligently crafted, stylish ballet. Taking its from the ancient Greek gods of the winds (pronounced ‘a-nem-i’ in Modern Greek and ‘a-nem-oy’ in Classical), dancers come and go frequently, as if blown on and off by their blustery force.

Mariko Sasaki and Lukas B Brændsrød in Anemoi by Valentino Zucchetti
Photo ROH / Alice Pennefather

It’s a ballet full of steps. It’s also classical through and through, traditional in many ways but with a contemporary energy. Zucchetti cleverly constructs patterns as dancers ripple across the wide open stage in a succession of solos, duets, small and large ensemble moments. Its elegant airiness is added to with the women’s light, blow-away dresses. At times the overall effect is quite filmic, the choreography, music and Simon Bennison’s simple backdrop of a sun very slowly moving across a big sky, suggesting a wide-open landscape.

It’s all centred around two couples representing warm and cold winds. As the former, Mariko Sasaki and Lukas B Brændsrød were all unhurried dreamy grace in their lyrical pas de deux. The final one, which comes with more than a hint of love about it, is notable for its many tricky but featherlight lifts, all completed with ease. Sasaki seemed to float on air as she surrendered in her partner’s arms. I’m not sure they need the distracting six silhouetted couples behind them, though.

In contrast, the dance for the cold winds is more spirited. Leticia Duas’ impressed with her fouettés but it was the playful, almost mischievous bravura leaps, spins and turns of Taisuke Nakao that really caught they eye; as did his sparkly gold lamé hoodie.

Mariko Sasaki and Lukas B Brændsrød in Valentino Zucchetti’s Anemoi
Photo ROH / Alice Pennefather

The final image of Sasaki held aloft as if carried by the winds towards a better future (remember the ballet was originally made during the pandemic), is quite sublime.

Anemoi is all aesthetically incredibly pleasing. It may be a ballet to wallow in rather than one that excites, but it’s a super response to the Rachmaninov and would make a beautiful opening ballet for any programme.

Cathy Marston’s The Cellist, which tells the story of the brilliant but complex genius that was cellist Jacqueline du Pré, brings a change of mood. Featuring numerous characters (although it is at its best in its less populated moments), the ballet charts her life from childhood. It becomes increasingly moving as we see her career cut short by multiple sclerosis, which forced her to stop performing at the age of 28, before ending on a sombre note with her death 14 years later.

Marston focuses much of the ballet on du Pré’s early life. We see her growing up (a fine performance by Ayla Orsborn as the younger Jacqueline), the influence of her overbearing mother (Christina Arestis), learning to play the cello, and falling in love with it. Indeed, ballet is as much about du Pré’s instrument as the musician herself. Marston’s decision to make the cello a character, to imbue it with feelings and to tell the story through its eyes is a stroke of genius.

Marcelino Sambé as The Instrument in Cathy Marston’s The Cellist
Photo ROH / Bill Cooper

Lauren Cuthbertson gives an increasingly affecting portrayal as the adult du Pré, She shows vividly how her relationship with her instrument became so strong that it brought increased distance between her and her overbearing mother (Christina Arestis) and stern, distant, disapproving father (Thomas Whitehead). There are some fine moments with the handsome and commanding Matthew Ball as The Conductor, her controlling husband Daniel Barenboim. There’s no mention of the impact of his relationship with another woman and the two children he fathered with her, however.

As The Instrument, Marcelino Sambé responds beautifully to being played. His dances with Cuthbertson, his embraces with his player, sing. Towards the end, no longer able to be played by his owner, Sambé, the cello, sits in a cupboard, totally distressed and shattered. He doesn’t need to dance. His body language speaks volumes. Not only does he show the total devastation he feels, but he makes you feel for him.

The final minutes, from the moment Cuthbertson realises she can no longer play in public, through her increasing loss of physical control is powerful. The sound of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, du Pré’s signature work, upping the poignancy.

Elsewhere, the staging is cleverly done, the ensemble becoming a record cabinet, a record player, lights, audience, orchestra and musical notes all works a treat. As is the Philip Feeney’s score.

The Cellist: a fine piece of dance drama, and a fitting memoir of a brilliant and popular musician whose career and life were so tragically cut short.