In my tiny collection of CDs is an album entitled A Lasting Inspiration, a collection of Jacqueline du Pré recordings. It was probably a gift for my Father, a great admirer of the cellist’s. In the 1960s she became a household name, particularly in a family where every member played a musical instrument, we bought the The Great Musicians Weekly and were very happy to receive classical music LPs at Christmas and for birthdays. Listening to records was a regular family activity in the evenings and at weekends, as was watching the classical music quiz show Face the Music.
As well as CDs, I also own a few black vinyl records. Their now slightly tatty covers, the feel of the vinyl, the dust they attract and scratches they are prone to bring back memories of the 1960s and 1970s, the “golden age of record players” (“The History of the Record Player”). They also remind us of their power as a measure of the success of a musician, both within their lifetime and beyond.
In the opening scene of Cathy Marton’s The Cellist, based on the life of du Pré (frequently referred to as Jackie), dancers gradually bring black vinyl records on to the stage, roll them like wheels across the stage, hold them to their ears and swoop them through the air in circular pathways. The motion of the LPs draws us back into their era and their world of classical music.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” (Lewis 147)
As is the case in so many ballets, love features as a major theme in The Cellist. In fact, Marston herself describes her ballet as a “story of love and loss” (qtd. in Alberge). Although romantic love is the central concern of so many works, we are accustomed to the portrayal of other types of love in ballet: parental love (Giselle), filial affection (La Fille mal gardée), the love between siblings (A Winter’s Dream), the loyalty of friendship (Le Corsaire), the bond between a teenager and her nurse (Romeo and Juliet), the mature love between husband and wife (Onegin). In The Cellist too parental love is notable, as well as the intense passion that is ignited between Jackie and the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. A more unusual type of love also emerges through the intermittent return to the stage of the records, tenderly handled by her fans. And this is inextricably bound to the great love at the heart of Marston’s ballet: du Pré’s lifelong love of music, and in concrete terms, her cello: not for nothing does Jenny Gilbert title her review “A grand love affair with a cello”.
Du Pré was celebrated for the passion of her playing. The 1967 video recording of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, (“Jacqueline du Pre & Daniel Barenboim Elgar Cello Concerto”), the musical composition most closely associated with her, shows her wrapping herself around her cello, gazing lovingly at its neck, and characteristically swaying from side to side, tossing her long golden hair back from time to time. The concerto ends with a triumphant flourish, immediately followed by a rhapsodic smile directed straight at her conductor Barenboim, conveying a palpable feeling of elation from the music they have just created together.
Adrian Curtin from Exeter University argues that du Pré’s “physical abandon” meant that “Her appeal derived not only from the sound of her playing; the sight of her playing was also an important element” (144). Given the significance of her physical style for audiences and the visibility of her deep and intense love for music, what better way to express this love in choreography than to cast a dancer as the Cello.
This decision was without a doubt a daring move on Marston’s part, although it is also a natural development in her choreographic style: dancers represent objects in Jane Eyre (2016), The Suit (2018) and Victoria (2019). Du Pré’s 1673 Stradivarius, however, is presented as an altogether more sentient being, and is of course, along with Jackie, the main protagonist. Not only did Marston want to explore the relationship between a human being and an object, but she wanted to investigate how the spirit of music represented by the Cello would feel looking back on its relationship with the musician (qtd. in Nepilova).
Given the sensuous nature of her choreography (think of the duets in Jane Eyre, The Suit and Victoria), Marston is the ideal choreographer to portray the vibrantly physical performer and her instrument. As Jackie and her Cello dance together they revolve around the stage, swirling, swooping, tumbling as one, only occasionally pausing for the Cello to admire the Cellist’s charismatic playing. Skimming across the stage together they bring to mind the notion of du Pré’s “close identification with the cello, as though performer and instrument were one” (Curtin 148). Once Barenboim is in the picture, Marston creates an exquisite metaphor for the bond between the three of them, as Jackie and her Cello rock forwards and backwards in a series of luscious, rapturous arabesques penchés and developpés devant, supported by Barenboim in the middle.
The magnificent climax to the ballet is in the form of the Elgar concert conducted by Barenboim, Jackie’s soon-to-be husband.
It is clear from the ebullience of Jackie’s behaviour that she has no idea how vulnerable her all-consuming love for her Cello has made her.
“A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.” (Didion 192)
Jackie stands with her Cello in front of an audience, poised and ready to perform. But no music is forthcoming. She is paralysed by the uncontrollable trembling of her right hand caused by the Multiple Sclerosis from which she is now suffering. The audience departs at the bidding of Barenboim.
Standing alone in front of her expectant audience, sitting alone desperate to come to terms with the disease, lying on the floor alone in despair, her world is empty. The Cello attempts to comfort her, repeating the embrace in which he initially held the Young Jackie. He tries to lift the ailing Adult Jackie in the same pose, holding his hands to her ears. But the movement that gave her life as a child she now rejects.
In his terse assessment of the situation, Adrian Curtin encapsulates its sheer brutality: du Pré “a musician known for her physical abandon was abandoned, as it were, by her own body” (148). The single missing “person” that makes her world empty is not the Cello itself, but her ability to make music with the Cello. As the Cello tries to repeat the rocking penché and developpé motion from the pas de trois with Barenboim, Jackie flounders, unable to execute the movements that once brought them both such joy.
Sitting alone in her chair, Jackie’s world looks empty.
And yet, her world isn’t quite empty.
Led by the Young Jackie, The Cellist comes to a quiet, but not silent, close with the return of the main characters to the stage. As the Cello slowly circles the space, he seems to be spinning the fabric of the ailing Jackie’s memories together. A dancer rolls a single LP across the stage once more. The LP is handed to the Young Jackie, a symbol of her lifelong love of music, her success and renown that survived her illness and death, and her extraordinary gift that is celebrated to this day. As our own memories of du Pré and her world have been rekindled, we are reminded that the past leaves behind traces, including glorious recordings of her work on vinyl, on CD and online in the form of television documentaries and recordings, as well as audio recordings.
In this cyclical structure, with its recollections of love and success and assurance that not all has been lost, lies resolution, even hope perhaps, as implied by Jenny Gilbert’s insightful closing remarks on the work: “Ultimately, the tone of The Cellist is celebratory, underlined by a closing image of Sambé slowly and dreamingly spinning like a vinyl LP”.
Undoubtedly Jacqueline du Pré will continue to be a “lasting inspiration” to lovers of classical music, “the music she made resonating onward, etched in the memories of those who heard her and the recordings she left behind” (Kemp). And in her new ballet The Cellist Cathy Marston has incalculably enriched our understanding of du Pré in the most poignant and inspirational way.
Curtin, Adrian. “‘O body swayed to music’: The allure of Jacqueline du Pré as spectacle and drama”. Studies in Musical Theatre, vol. 9, no. 2, June 2015, pp. 143-59, Intellect, doi:10.1386/smt.9.2.143_1.
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. Harper Perennial, 2006.
In September, Julia and Rosie presented a paper at the Theatre & Performance Research Association Conference in Exeter on Cathy Marston and the influence of Regietheater (directors’ theatre) on her choreographic style.
We thought we would share with our readers a version of our script as very little has been written about this aspect of Cathy’s work.
As you probably know, Cathy has been creating dance works for over twenty years and is in demand internationally. Predominantly she is known for her narrative ballets, adaptations of literature, drama and biography. Marston was brought up in the UK, the daughter of two English teachers, a background that led naturally to a love of literature. We really enjoyed her description of her birthday, when she was about 12 years old: evidently, instead of having a party, she requested a visit to Stratford to see The Merchant of Venice(“Interview with Cathy Marston”).
Of course, Marston was also drawn to ballet, and we find it interesting that at the age of around 14 she was already concerned about the meaning of movement and its potential for expression:
I actually took that [RAD] syllabus book to bed … and wrote next to every plié what the particular port de bras meant for me or what that frappé exercise was supposed to express to me. So I think it was always about what the dance was telling rather than how it was happening. (“Delving into Dance”)
After studying for two years at the Royal Ballet Upper School (1992-1994), Marston worked as a dancer in Switzerland (1996-1999) and during this period started to choreograph professionally. However, in addition to choreographing, Marston worked as artistic director of Bern Ballett for six years, from 2007 to 2013. As artistic director and choreographer, Marston was exposed to European theatre practices, in particular Regietheater, often translated as “directors’ theatre” (Boenisch 1).
In this Spotlight post we will examine Marston’s Juliet and Romeo, which she created in 2009 for Bern Ballett, and her biographical ballet Victoria, which premiered earlier this year in Leeds with Northern Ballet. In this way we can examine the negotiation in her work between her British roots and the strong influence of European theatre practice on her approach to adaptation for the ballet stage.
In a recent interview, Marston commented on her understanding of the term Regietheater:
The German attitude is something called Regietheater, which means director’s theatre: the director, and in this case the choreographer, should interpret the text, rather than put it on stage as written. … you can cut the text up inside out, upside down, you could do whatever you want with the source in order to convey your vision
Marston’s description of Regietheater as “cutting up the text inside out and upside down” is akin to Peter M. Boehnisch’s words: “I wonder whether precisely a genuinely emancipatory ‘messing up’ is not the briefest possible description of what the contested Regietheaterdoes …” (5).
In their outlining of Regie both Boenisch and Marvin Carlson highlight the director’s interpretations of “traditional” (Carlson 68), “older” (110) or canonical plays (Boenisch 1). Particularly in the Anglophone world, this is where the director’s role as “creative artist in his or her own right”, as Carlson expresses it (110), or Boenisch’s “messing up”, perhaps seems at its most radical and unsettling.
Amongst Marston’s over 60 choreographic works are adaptations of canonical works of literature and drama, including:
The adaptation of a narrative from one medium to another, is by its very nature a creative act, perhaps most obviously when a verbal form is being transposed to a non-verbal form, as in the case of an adaptation from a Shakespearean drama to a ballet. As you know, Romeo and Juliet is an extremely popular ballet across the globe, and the British ballet repertoire already includes a canon of three Romeo and Juliet choreographies, all of them using the score specifically composed by Sergei Prokofiev in 1935 and all of them following the clear structure provided by Prokofiev with its discrete acts and scenes, themes and leitmotifs. They are not the only ballet adaptations of Shakespeare’s play performed by British companies (there is, for example, the innovative Ballet Cymru production from 2013), but these three were all created by revered British choreographers who are in addition identified as creators of an English style of ballet: Frederick Ashton, John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan.
These three Romeo and Juliet ballets were all created between 1955 and 1965 for the Royal Danish Ballet (Ashton), Stuttgart Ballet (Cranko) and Britain’s Royal Ballet (MacMillan). They are large-scale works of high drama that employ rich, colourful décor and costumes representative of the period; as such they complement the sumptuous music score. While each work is distinguished by the variations in choreographic style, there is a certain predictability in their characterisation and linear structure.
By the time Marston choreographed Juliet and Romeo she knew that such an approach would not have been well received well in Bern, where the theatre directorship, critics and audiences were accustomed to a more experimental approach on the part of a director, or choreographer in this case, towards a canonical work. Additionally, Bern Ballett is a small- to mid-scale company and would therefore be unable to provide large numbers of dancers for teeming market and ballroom scenes.
Marston’s approach to this situation was to create a work for 11 dancers representing 11 characters dressed in costumes that might be 21st century or could even be a reference to the 1950s. The stage is framed by scaffolding and stacks of posters that are moved around by the dancers in the course of the performance to create different spaces. The impression is distinctly monochrome. Some of the posters are moved individually and become visible to the audience as posters of Juliet from previous film, theatre, and ballet productions of Romeo and Juliet, including Olivia Hussey in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1963 film. The conflicts take place between Mercutia, Benvolio and Romeo on the side of the Montagues, and Tybalt, Lord Capulet and Paris for the Capulets. Weapons and potions are replaced by a single shard of mirrored glass visibly located downstage when not in use.
We can compare Marston’s production to those of Ashton, Cranko and MacMillan by referring to different traditions of theatre practice. Boehnisch distinguishes the practice of “directing a play” in an English context and “making a performance” in Continental Europe (3). The choreographers Ashton, Cranko and MacMillan indubitably “made a performance” by the incontrovertible fact of having created ballet movement inspired by Shakespeare’s play and Prokofiev’s music. However, because of their adherence to ballet codes of technique, gender, structure, characterisation and music-movement relationship, we argue that the process of creating these productions is also akin to “directing a play”, particularly when compared with Marston’s approach to the same task. The details of Marston’s set and costumes that we have outlined, and the re-gendering of Mercutio are consistent with the notion of “making a performance” and giving a specific direction or purpose to the “text” (5), as Boenisch puts it. Further, Marston as choreographer raises questions of patriarchy, gender, contemporary relevance and relationships between “texts” rather than choreographing the narrative to mirror the Prokofiev score. In this way she also “confronts existing ideas and assumed certainties”, which is a significant aspect of Regie for Boenisch (10).
These properties of Regie – making a performance, giving the text a specific purpose and destabilising certainties – can be observed even more clearly in three striking features of Juliet and Romeo: the unusual structuring of the work, the foregrounding of Juliet and Friar Laurence, and the emphasis on the themes of authority and conflict.
In Prokoviev’s score and the three traditional British adaptations of the ballet, Friar Laurence is a minor and straightforward role. In stark contrast, Marston’s Juliet and Romeo both starts and ends with Juliet and Friar Laurence – the two characters who are in possession of all the facts pertaining to Juliet’s duplicitous “death”. The ballet opens with the scene where Juliet threatens to kill herself, and a motif is established between Juliet and Friar Laurence, whereby the Friar lifts Juliet away from the shard of glass, she pirouettes into him, he catches her and pulls her upstage right, away from the shard’s location.
Another motif is established where Laurence places his hands close to Juliet’s head, thereby drawing her back in time: from this scene in Juliet and Romeo the sequence of events follows the usual trajectory, beginning with the Montagues and Capulets’ initial brawl and ending with the double suicide.
The focus on Friar Laurence and Juliet, and their relationship, is developed as they spend time together at the start of the ballet watching the events that have passed, sometimes also walking amongst the Veronans. Juliet at times seeks to intervene in the action, and repeatedly returns to the thought of suicide. Through the course of the ballet the Friar frequently appears at moments of conflict, moves posters or rolls them up in an understated but deliberate way. At the end of the ballet he brings Juliet downstage, organises her body tidily and places the shard in its usual location, conveying a sense of inevitability to the narrating of this tragedy. Occasionally Juliet rebels against the Friar, pushing him away or running away from him. Ultimately, the conflict within Juliet it is resolved by her death. In our opinion, the prominence of Laurence, whose movements could be interpreted as either manipulative or protective, or both, seems to follow Shakespeare’s portrayal: a prominent figure of authority, an ambiguous character who constructs a dubious plan to reunite the lovers that ends with their death (Herman).
This fascinating restructuring and refocussing of the narrative is underpinned by Marston’s use of the Prokofiev score: appropriately, rather than starting with the love theme of the overture, Juliet and Romeo begins with the “Duke’s Command” that represents Prince Escalus’ warning to the Capulets and Montagues, and through this establishes an atmosphere of “conflict and tragic premonition” (Bennett). This approach is “radically at odds with” traditional ballet adaptations of the narrative, which emphasise the romantic relationship between Romeo and Juliet, a radicalism that is highlighted by Carlson as a feature of Regie (110). For us, the emphasis on conflict, the ambiguity of Friar Laurence’s actions and his role as narrator mark a welcome return to concepts central to Shakespeare’s text.
As we discussed in relation to the British ballet canon of Romeo and Juliet choreographies, the British ballet-going public, unlike the Bern audience, are accustomed to narrative ballets with realistic depiction of time and place and to a straightforward linear rendition of the storyline. We enjoy Marston’s description of this as the “BBC costume drama” approach to adaptation (“Delving into Dance”). Two recent examples of this approach are The Winter’s Tale (2014) and Frankenstein (2016), choreographed for Britain’s Royal Ballet by contemporaries of Marston, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett respectively, who, like Marston, are English graduates of the Royal Ballet School.
While Victoria, created for Britain’s Northern Ballet, appears to us less radical than Juliet and Romeo, neither does if conform to the “BBC costume drama” model: although relatively large-scale, with rich costumes recognisably representing the Victorian era, the influence of Regietheater is unmistakable in the structure and presentation of the narrative of Victoria’s life.
You may not be aware that over the course of her lifetime, Queen Victoria was an enthusiastic diarist. Upon her death her youngest child Beatrice took on the task of editing and rewriting the diaries from 122 to 111 volumes, a monumental enterprise that took her more than three decades. The ballet Victoria is framed by Beatrice’s rewriting of her Mother’s diaries, beginning shortly before Victoria’s death, ending with Albert’s death and spanning over sixty years. Therefore the narrative is presented in flashbacks as the audience witnesses Beatrice reading the diaries, the contents of which are simultaneously represented on the stage. Beatrice edits according to her to emotional reactions, including nostalgia and longing; surprise and delight; disapprobation and anger. For the purposes of this process two dancers portray Beatrice: one performs Beatrice as a young woman, and the other the older Beatrice, who is seldom absent from the stage.
There is an intriguing parallel between the way in which Beatrice furiously rips out segments from the journals and Marston “cuts up” and reassembles the “text” of Victoria’s life making a Regie performance. Further, by portraying her life to the audience through the eyes of Beatrice, Marston gives a specific direction and purpose to Victoria’s biographical narrative, a direction that “confronts existing ideas and assumed certainties” (Boenisch 10) about Queen Victoria.
Marston herself refers to Beatrice as an “unreliable witness” (qtd. in Dennison). Her conscious choice of an “unreliable witness” is not only in line with current thinking about the writing of history, but also reflects the approach of Regietheater to the past, according to which the past cannot simply be brought into the present through straightforward representation (Boenisch 29). In discussing this issue Boenisch refers to the term “aesthetic mediation”, which emphasises the “distance and unavailability of the past” (9) integral to the philosophy of Regie. Through aesthetic mediation the past is “re-presented” (29), and the lacuna between the dramatic text (or in this case the dominant narrative of Victoria’s life) and its staging is exploited (30).
Integral to this “aesthetic mediation” in Marston’s ballet are the set and the corps de ballet of archivists: the stage is dominated by bookcases housing Victoria’s red volumes, which gradually over the course of the work the archivists replace with Beatrice’s edited blue volumes. In comparison with more orthodox productions of narrative ballets in this country, such as The Winter’s Tale and Frankenstein, this set is distinguished not only by its essential contribution to the action, but also its relative sparseness and ability to create a number of environments for the purpose of the narrative. In its relative minimalism Victoria cannot compare, for example, with the extreme bareness of Miki Manojlović’s 2015 Romeo and Juliet, set on a metallic cross. However, its imaginative and fluid use of stage space does seem to represent a negotiation between the general expectations of ballet in this country and the influence of Regietheater that has become integral to Marston’s choreographic style.
Echoing Boenisch’s words, Marston’s experience of encountering Regietheater she describes as liberating: “You can really take pieces, take traditional, archetypal works of literature or mythology and extract what inspires you, and that’s really given me the freedom to find my own voice (“Interview”). Victoria is an iconic monarch whose persona is indubitably imbued with the mythology of the “Widow of Windsor”, a queen grieving for her consort for almost four decades in her black bombazine, symbolic of the deepest mourning. In Act I the audience witnesses this well worn image of Victoria: in Act II the young Victoria emerges in all her ebullience, with her sense of fun, and the intense physicality of her passion, expressed both in abject rage and in the euphoria of sexual pleasure. By drawing an analogy between the myth of Victoria and a playtext, we can describe this production as what Boenisch terms a “play-performance” and conclude that “our perception and understanding [of Queen Victoria] is ultimately changed through the play-performance afforded by Regie” (9).
As far as we can see, Cathy Marston’s approach to adapting narrative for the dance stage, wherever in the globe that might be, is driven by concepts and ideas rather than linearity and “fidelity” to the text being adapted (Hutcheon and O’Flynn). In the case of both Juliet and Romeo and Victoria, choreographed a decade apart in different contexts, what we thought we knew about figures from the canon of English literature and British history is questioned in a way that goes “beyond established paradigms of meaning” (Boenisch 5), revealing their “inherent contradictions ” (10). This is achieved through integrating features of the “emancipatory ‘messing up’” that is Regietheater (5).
Narrative ballets, mostly adaptations of existing narratives, have been crucial to the British ballet repertoire since its inception in the late 1920s. Now, in the 21st century, Marston has developed an approach to creating narrative choreographic works that on the one hand, as she says “respects” her sources, as in the British tradition (“Interview”), but on the other hand challenges audience perception of the subject matter, in a way the owes much to the influence of living and working in Continental Europe.
In February next year Marston’s The Cellist, a ballet about Jacqueline du Pré, premieres at Covent Garden. An imaginative subject matter, as so often. We look forward to seeing how Marston approaches her chosen topic, and wait with bated breath to see what she has in store for us in the future …
We would like to thank Cathy Marston for her help and support in the writing of this post, and of course for her marvellous choreography!
Bennett, Karen. “Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Socialist Realism: a Case-Study in Inter-semiotic Translation”. Shakespeare and European Politics, edited by Dirk Delabastita, Josef de Vos, Paul Franssen, U of Delaware P, 2008, pp. 318-28.
Boenisch, Peter. Directing Scenes and Senses: the thinking of Regie. Manchester UP, 2015.
Carlson, Marvin. Theatre: a very short introduction. Oxford, UP, 2014.
McCulloch, Lynsey. “’Here’s that shall make you dance’: Movement and Meaning in Bern: Ballett’s Julia und Romeo”. Reinventing the Renaissance: Shakespeare and his Contemporaries in Adaptation and Performance, edited by Sarah Brown, Robert Lublin, Lynsey McCulloch. Palgrave MacMillan, 2013, pp. 255-268.