When Gramophone interviewed Cathy Marston for June’s My Music feature, the choreographer alluded to a project that she was keeping under wraps, for which the music itself – rather than any text or narrative – was the source and focus: ‘I’m making a piece which has a musical background,’ she said. ‘Sometimes the music is the story.’
With the Royal Opera House’s recent announcement of the 2019/20 season, the mystery has been solved. The British choreographer, who is currently enjoying international success with her story ballets Victoria and Jane Eyre, is creating a work on the life and career of Jacqueline du Pré. Based on a scenario devised by Marston and Edward Kemp, to a score stitched together by Marston’s regular collaborator Philip Feeney, the new piece will be premiered by the Royal Ballet on Covent Garden’s main stage in February 2020.
Marston has always been drawn to storytelling, and to music that helps her tell that story. For Snowblind, her San Francisco Ballet commission coming to Sadler’s Wells at the end of the May, she chose music by Amy Beach and Arthur Foote, two members of the Boston Six – a composers’ collective which, like Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome which inspired the ballet, has its roots in turn-of-the-20th-century New England.
But Marston is also attracted to music that has its own embedded narrative: ‘One of the things I love about some pieces is the stories behind them,’ she told Gramophone, referring to Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 2, whose yearning slow movement is thought to reflect the composer’s unrequited love for Clara Schumann. Little wonder, then, that Elgar’s Cello Concerto – a work indelibly linked with the British cellist who died tragically from multiple sclerosis at the age of just 42 – will play a significant role in Marston’s new work.
The idea for a ballet featuring a cello first occurred to Marston in 2017 when she made Dangerous Liaisons for the Royal Danish Ballet, which included a short passage in which a male dancer was ‘played’ as a cello. ‘It was so easy to establish what he was’, she tells Gramophone from New York following the new season announcement, ‘and in that moment I saw the potential for a larger piece.’
Marston’s sister subsequently suggested the story of Jacqueline du Pré, and it was an idea that just seemed to fit. Having a female dancer miming playing an actual cello was never an option – once again, a male dancer will be the cello, but he will also represent Fate and possibly even Elgar himself.
‘We’ve been thinking about how talent gets bestowed on individuals,’ Marston explains. ‘Do you find it, or does it choose you?’ The choreographer is fascinated by the idea of du Pré’s identity being defined not only by her personality but by her talent, her music, her very soul. As her illness took hold and she lost the ability to play, in a way she also lost her voice: ‘She described how, when she played in front of people, a brick wall fell down in front of her,’ Marston says. ‘Jackie found a way to communicate to thousands of people that still touches our hearts today.’
But while du Pré’s identity was very much bound up with her cello-playing, she and the Elgar Concerto remain two separate entities, argues Marston. ‘Jackie was not the Elgar,’ she insists. ‘I love the work, and it’s more symbolic than other works she was associated with, but at the same time they’re not one and the same.’
Marston’s solution to this is two-fold: the score, for full orchestra and to include a solo cellist (in the pit), will integrate the Elgar throughout as a recurring theme; and the male-dancer ‘cello’ will also represent a guiding light, a voice of reason – ‘an older man, somebody who knows love and has lost it … and that equates well to him being Elgar’. That a priceless cello is likely to have exchanged hands several times, to have suffered ‘the beautiful loss’ of one owner and the joy of another, also adds to Marston’s idea of the cello being more than just a cello.
When, with the Royal Ballet’s artistic director Kevin O’Hare, Marston paid a visit to du Pré’s widower Daniel Barenboim to discuss the concept, the choreographer was understandably nervous: ‘It could have gone in any direction,’ she admits. As it was, the renowned pianist-conductor was ‘lovely’: ‘He totally accepted what we wanted to do,’ she recalls. ‘He was a little surprised – he hadn’t expected a ballet – but he was very happy to have Jackie celebrated in this way.’
Barenboim was also happy about Marston’s plan to portray him as a conductor, even though he was a pianist when he and du Pré first met. And he wasn’t prescriptive about the music that should be used, although he told Marston that if she wanted advice at any time then she should let him know. In the event, Feeney’s score will incorporate, in addition to the Elgar, other pieces associated with du Pré – the Piatti Caprices, and works by Saint-Saëns, Brahms, Mendelssohn – in addition to new music written by Feeney himself.
Feeney is currently bringing the score together, having recently joined the choreographer for a week in the studio with Royal Ballet dancers. For Marston, the real work begins in August; until then, she’s immersing herself in research (she has already interviewed several people close to du Pré, including the filmmaker Christopher Nupen) and mentally confronting the challenge of portraying this iconic cellist in her many guises, from impassioned music-maker to ‘sometimes-childish’ goofball. And then there’s the question of her ‘Amazonian stature’ (in photographs, she towers over Barenboim): ‘Ballet dancers are naturally tiny, and very graceful,’ says Marston. 'How much does a dancer need to move like her, and how much of it is about capturing her spirit?’
There’s one matter, however, on which Marston is very much decided. This will not be a ballet that dwells on scandal and tragedy. While we will see an element of du Pré’s illness (with Marston, drawing on the experience of her own mother’s MS diagnosis, determined to handle this subject matter with sensitivity), the overarching aim of the piece is to celebrate the life of this extraordinary human being. ‘What’s so wonderful about Jackie’s talent is that it has gone on, through recordings and video footage, to inspire others,’ says Marston. ‘Of course there will be sadness, but the ballet will also be a celebration of the fact that talent like this exists and gets renewed.’
Marston’s new ballet is one of several highlights of the 2019/20 dance season; others include a double Merce Cunningham centennial tribute, planned for the Linbury Theatre, and 'The Dante Project' – Wayne McGregor’s first collaboration with composer Thomas Adès. Opera-wise, 'Zauberland', based on Schumann’s 'Dichterliebe', is at the Linbury, and 'Alice’s Adventures Under Ground' by Gerald Barry receives its premiere on the main stage; for full details, visit roh.org.uk
Cathy Marston’s 'My Music' interview features in the June issue of Gramophone, on sale from May 17 (digitally) and May 22 (in print)