The talented musician Jacqueline Du Pré, and her struggles with MS, has inspired the new play, The Cellist, now open at the Royal Opera House. Read more about this inspirational story in in this article by The Guardian.
Numbness in her fingertips was among the early symptoms of a debilitating condition that robbed Jacqueline du Pré of the ability to play the cello and cut short her life. Now, more than three decades after the virtuoso musician’s death aged 42 from multiple sclerosis, she has inspired a production by the Royal Ballet.
Portraying Du Pré’s illness has been a particular challenge for the choreographer. In shaping a ballet that celebrates the British cellist’s life – its highs and its lows – Cathy Marston drew on her own mother’s experience of MS, which affects the brain and spinal cord. She also consulted others living with the condition and Du Pré’s friends and husband, the concert pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. The Cellist opens at the Royal Opera House in February.
“The reason for making a piece on Du Pré was not to explore MS, but it happens that my mother also has MS,” Marston told the Observer. “So it’s a little more personal than it might otherwise have been.”
Du Pré was a musical genius whose passionate performances made her an international star, with Elgar’s mournful cello concerto among her enduring recordings.
After her marriage to Barenboim in 1967, the couple became darlings of the music world, but she was soon experiencing weakness and loss of sensation in her limbs, among other symptoms. “My hands no longer worked,” she later recalled. “I simply couldn’t feel the strings.” It was not until 1973 that she was finally diagnosed with MS.
The Cellist features Royal Ballet principals Lauren Cuthbertson as Du Pré and Matthew Ball as Barenboim, while Marcelino Sambé personifies her cello. Kevin O’Hare, the Royal Ballet’s artistic director, said that Marston had cleverly focused the ballet on the loves of her life, and had found “a language” to portray the cellist’s condition.
Marston has been associated with the Royal Ballet since 1997. The Cellist is her first work for the main stage and follows the success of her Jane Eyre and Victoria for Northern Ballet.
Between rehearsals she spoke of the difficulty of portraying MS, which can cause a wide range of symptoms, including pain, fatigue and muscle spasms. Marston wanted to reflect the psychological toll on someone before a diagnosis is made, “[There] was a really significant period for [Du Pré] when she was feeling this numbness in her fingers … [and] tripping up …. but she didn’t know what it was. People have spoken [to me] at length about that time … being one of great anxiety because you don’t know and you try to hide it. I think that’s what Jackie did.”
In one scene, Marston shows Du Pré back with her parents, unable to keep doing the concert circuit, “She tries to pretend that everything’s OK, but it’s not. She collapses.”
In a hospital scene, the musician is passed from one doctor to another. Marston said, “Accumulating behind her in another area of the stage are what we’re calling ‘symptoms’. I have a chorus in the ballet, a corps de ballet. They become the music, her school friends, audience members. At this point, they become the symptoms.”
In preparing the dancers, Marston drew up words and phrases relating to symptoms, from which physical gestures could be shaped. They included “something crawling through your blood”. But most of all the ballet is a celebration of the cellist, she said. “It’s a story of love and loss. It’s a piece that I wanted to approach with more poetry than realism. I chose not to portray her in an actual wheelchair.” Instead, two male dancers lift her “almost as if they are a human wheelchair”.
O’Hare said, “The heartbreaking thing about [MS] was [that Du Pré] was such a physical player, and then it was taken away from her.”
The Royal Ballet is liaising with the MS Society in running dance workshops that will culminate in a public performance on 27 March. The group will include people living with the condition, some of whom are former dancers.
Ed Holloway of the MS Society said, “More than 100,000 people live with MS in the UK, but understanding of the condition is still limited. The Cellist is an incredible way to honour Jacqueline du Pré’s legacy, and we hope it will raise vital awareness of the impact MS can have.”