A letter to Cranko

The 50th anniversary of Cranko’s death falls in 2023

John’s chair in the Stuttgart Bellettsaal

Dear John,

You died in 1973 aged forty-six and now it is nearly 50 years since that ghastly day. You wouldn’t believe ballet’s developments during the past half century. Some marvellous, some not so marvellous. But let’s talk about the positive.

The really good news is that a couple of years ago The John Cranko School was installed in wonderful, gleaming new premises, near the old school  between Werastrasse and Urbansplatz. 

Reid fought really hard for this and I think it’s the most fitting monument to you. Your frequently stated belief in good dance training was particularly important to you. Whilst you were fortunate to have distinguished teachers when you were learning, and according to your letters you worked very hard, your training was simply not long enough. Once you were in the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet your ambition to choreograph took over. 

You recognised your own shortcomings as a dancer and perhaps that is why you were so keen to develop the school in Stuttgart.  I can’t help thinking of the classes that you gave to the company from time to time in the early days. They were pretty terrifying; the battements frappés sautés as a third exercise at the barre took the cake. In Anne, though, you recognised a fine ballet teacher, something of a philosopher herself, really. (She, Marcia and you made a perfect troika!). Anyway, now, the school that takes your name can continue to grow in a state-of-the-art building.

Ballet in the past half century

Jiri Kylian, whose choreographic talent you recognised from the beginning) has always paid homage to you and you would , I know, love the quizzical nature and the sly humour of much of his work. It exists, without ever looking Cranko-clone-like, as a proud part of your heritage. John Neumeier, too, has done wonderful things in Hamburg, where he took over in the year of your death. Ballet has changed its identity more in the past half century than ever before, mainly because dancers’ physical capabilities have improved so dramatically. Their speed, flexibility and strength is fully exploited by choreographers like Wayne McGregor and William Forsythe (another from the Stuttgart stable). 

You experienced and, dare I say, dabbled in some of the tenets of post modernism, one of the first ballet choreographers to do so. Nowadays even my young students are more at home with Phillip Glass than Tchaikovsky. In the year you died Pina Bausch took over the company in Wuppertal. Watching her works such as Café Müller I can imagine a direction in which your work might have gone, particularly when choreographing for Marcia.  But I’m probably on the wrong track; you were always original, your imagination taking you from one uncharted territory to the next (except when you emulated Balanchine during your unfortunate  ‘Baroque phase’.

Balanchine and Ashton

Your revered Balanchine (“flesh becomes spirit in ballets like Apollo“) and Fred Ashton (“a mature choreographic genius”) both outlived you, so you missed ballets like Davidsbundlertänze and  A Month in the Country. It just struck me, when they were 46 they hadn’t yet made Agon or La Fille mal gardée.  Some people would rank your Onegin alongside the masterpieces  of Ashton and Balanchine but you would have immediately rejected that idea. You recognized, I think, that  these two men in their separate ways each had utter faith in the tenets of balletic classicism, and that they designed their works to let the dance, above all, make their feelings known. Full classical training as dancers had instilled in them a confidence in extending the classical ballet vocabulary. This confidence wasn’t available to you, as your training started so late; in your choreography you felt it necessary to superimpose explication and comment on the steps you assembled. You would have loved to be become the C  to Ashton and Balanchine’s A & B of ballet, but the one fatal flaw denied this to you. This sounds harsh but why should it  stunt admiration of countless other facets of your work?

Your communication with people

John Percival wrote a richly detailed biography of you (as you knew, he and Clive Barnes always championed what you were doing in England, Stuttgart and New York). More than once, Percival conjectured publicly that you should have taken over the artistic direction of the Royal Ballet. I can’t imagine you getting on very well with some of the administrators, and I’m sure you would have had irreconcilable clashes with the board. What else would you have gone on to do? You might have formed a National Dance Company in Berlin after German unification. Or, more likely, branched into experimental dance theatre, perhaps evolving a whole new genre. Perhaps you might done for dance what Leonard Bernstein did for music. You had a wonderful way of communicating with young people and your enthusiasms were always contagious.

What made  – and still makes – you so lovable to young people particularly, was that you always ‘wore your heart on your sleeve’.  Nowadays not many choreographers see any need to reveal their hearts. To quote Constant Lambert in a different context, they roll up their sleeves and show you the work they are doing.

Ray Barra, Marcia Haydée, Anita Cardus and Egon Madsen, the first (1965) cast of Onegin, pictured at a reunion in 2011.

There was a reunion in Stuttgart in 2011 to celebrate the 50 years since you arrived there. Former members of the company assembled from far and wide. Your original cast of principals from Onegin posed for my camera.  There was much laughter and quite a few tears shed. The overriding atmosphere was one of empathy and humanity; any differences melted away, former strangers embraced. This, as much as any of your ballets, was what your life was about. 

Ashley

John Cranko and Ashley Killar in the a rehearsal

Me, aged 18, watching you make a point in rehearsal