The Cellist: Will Gompertz reviews the Royal Ballet work inspired by Jacqueline du Pré ★★★★☆

The Cellist

It might sound a bit rich coming from someone not noted for his good looks, but beauty isn’t getting the respect it deserves.

Not so long ago it was all the rage.

Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant was pro-beauty. He considered it a form of morality.

Einstein said it enticed the inner child out of us.

And wise old Confucius believed everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.

Bringing it into plain sight used to be the job of artists, authors and composers wearing billowing white shirts with splendid frou-frou collars last seen on Duran Duran in the 1980s. But pop’s New Romantics were no match for the relentless march of modernism with its frigid less-is-more dogma and strict no-frills dress code.

I blame Marcel Duchamp.

He was the artist who proposed a urinal as a work of art back in 1917. He chose it precisely because it was, as he said, anti-retinal: an unattractive sight. It was intended as an act of destruction: an enamelled Exocet missile aimed at the heart of a bourgeois art establishment aligned to a political class responsible for a horrific, bloody war.

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Marcel Duchamp's urinal wasn't deemed a work of art and considered indecent by the Society of Independent ArtistsImage copyrightALAMY
Image captionMarcel Duchamp’s urinal wasn’t deemed a work of art in 1917 by the Society of Independent Artists, who considered it indecent

It was no time for beauty, Duchamp argued.

If art meant anything at all it should speak the truth about what was happening, which was ugly and base. His toilet scored a direct hit, romanticism was dead. Henceforth, beauty was naff and frivolous; cynicism was the new religion for our secular age. Music became dissonant, literature became fragmented, theatre became absurd, and art turned ugly.

Caught up among the collateral damage was classical narrative ballet, the most romantic of art forms.

Tutus and fairies had no place in the new order. Ballet was dispatched to the art dog house, to be consumed by the people of Tunbridge Wells, or somewhere equally as uncool, where locals dress in brown tweed and mustard corduroy and consider Country Life a magazine not a brand of butter.

Dancers in The Cellist ballet


And that is where ballet remains, with some of the most beautiful choreography and music ever created written off as elitist and irrelevant.

It’s a shame.

To see exceptionally talented dancers express emotions and story through graceful movement accompanied by a full orchestra is a sensuous experience like no other.

It isn’t posh or difficult or any more expensive than going to a gig or a Premier League football match.

It isn’t stuck in the past either.

The Cellist has just opened at the Royal Opera House in London. It is a new ballet by Cathy Marston telling the true story of Jacqueline du Pré, the prodigiously gifted post-war cellist whose career and life were cruelly cut short by multiple sclerosis.

Choreographer Cathy Marston behind Marcelino Sambé, shows Lauren Cuthbertson how to hold her cello during rehearsalImage copyrightROYAL OPERA HOUSE
Image captionChoreographer Cathy Marston behind Marcelino Sambé, shows Lauren Cuthbertson how to hold her cello during rehearsal

The tragic-romantic tale of love and loss centred around a young woman is classic classical ballet.

The difference here, though, is the subject of our heroine’s affections isn’t her lover and husband, the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, but her instrument: the eponymous cello.

Barenboim gets to play the gooseberry, as he watches his wife enthusiastically pluck her instrument, brought vividly to life by the Royal Ballet’s newly promoted principal dancer, Marcelino Sambé.

Lauren Cuthbertson takes the role of Jacqueline du Pré, and, as you would expect from one of the finest dancers of her generation, gives a wonderfully nuanced and intelligent performance.

The supremely gifted and famous couple, Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim caught the public imaginationImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe gifted and celebrated couple, Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim caught the public imagination in the 1960s
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The CellistImage copyrightREX
Image captionMatthew Ball (Daniel Barenboim) looks on as Lauren Cuthbertson (Jacqueline du Pré) is entranced by her instrument, Marcelino Sambé

The show begins with us meeting a very young Jacqueline (played by a student at White Lodge ballet school) at home with her parents where she is having her first encounter with the instrument that would make her an international superstar by the mid-60s.

Enter Cuthbertson, who stands behind Sambé (her cello) and mimes playing him to the sound of Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

It is… beautiful.

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Lauren Cuthbertson (as Jacqueline du Pré) joyfully plays her cello, Marcelino SambéImage copyrightROYAL OPERA HOUSE
Image captionLauren Cutherbertson said the ballet required a different way of thinking, because usually the female dancer was positioned in front of the male
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He then lifts her and pirouettes as she maintains a seated playing position, which I must admit, is less beautiful and took my mind back to Duchamp and lavatories. No matter, it is one of very few awkward moments in a piece full of newly found positions, which races through Du Pré’s life in 60 minutes.

Barenboim enters the fray, leading to a memorable pas de trois, before dread looms in the form of an inexplicable shake in the cellist’s right leg. The transformation from a woman at the very top of her game to one confronting an unknown terror is undertaken with enormous skill and sensitivity by Cuthbertson, whose on-stage chemistry with Sambé transmits her love for him – her cello – with an intensity that makes the hopelessness of her situation profoundly moving.

To have a talent such as hers is a blessing, to have it snatched away so soon by a silent, malevolent condition seems so cruel, to her and us. It is the tragedy of something truly marvellous being destroyed.

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The story of love and loss is expressed movingly by the two ballet dancersImage copyrightROYAL OPERA HOUSE
Image captionThe Cellist’s story of love and loss is expressed movingly by the Royal Ballet’s principal dancers
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That is not a romantic condition, it was a fact of life for Jacqueline du Pré, a reminder that beauty should be cherished not banished. It is not uncool or naff, it is an ideal worth believing in and striving for and appreciating.

That is the message of The Cellist, delivered with aplomb by the dancers and orchestra who accompany them with a score referencing pieces by Elgar, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff and Schubert.


Note: The Cellist can be seen on screen in a live link to selected cinemas on 25 February.

This blog is a notebook for me to record statements around the issues:
is it art?
what is art?

if it is art, is it good art?

What is good art?

Why do people do things that we/they call art

Because it is my own blog and notebook, I reserve the right to be incoherent and disorganized.  Having said that, I welcome comments that further the enquiry from people who can tolerate this.





But art… art is sacred. Art is an expression of human sentiment and emotion. Computers stand zero chance of consigning human creativity to the history books. Right? Well, maybe. We’re already seeing the early signs that art will be disrupted by machine intelligence and automation.

Joe rogan neil de grasse Tyson6 sept 19


Called rolling hills but noquote from neil at beginning:

re Van Gogh starry night

’you Know what I like about starry night?  It’s not what Van Gogh saw that night. It’s what he felt.’

The above said in measured momentous tones with knowing emphasis on felt.


JR bless him does [not let this pass  ‘how do you know what he felt?

neil seems a little perturbed by the question  his answer is:

’because  this is not a representation of reality And anything that deviates from reality is reality filtered through your senses and I think art at its highest is exactly that.  If this was an exact depiction of reality it would be a photograph and I don’t need the artist.’

JR ‘oh okay’

neil:  ‘so, è ven photographs that take you to a slightly other dimension as you gaze upon them it’s more than what was actually going on at the time and that’s art taken to the craft of photography,

JR ‘and that’s why you like it?’


That’s one of the reasons why.  I think it was  the very first painting where its title is the background. Think about that This could have been  called oh you know obviously in the full painting, this is a snippet




YEAH THERE’s A TOWN THERE THERE’s A CYPRESS TREE there is a church steeple. It could have been called cypress tree. It could have been called sleepy village it could have been

calld rollin hills

bur no it’s called starry night and everything in front of it everything in front of it is just in the way.  How often do you paint something where the title is the background. That’s my point and in this particular case the background is the universe and so for me this was a pivot point in art and this was 1889 which is recent given the history of paintings that go all the way back. So yeah

JR Is that your favourite painting ever

neil. I have to say yes