A lost ballet

Since Cranko died nearly fifty years ago, about 18 of his ballets have been preserved, mainly in Stuttgart. Of course, there were many that did not survive, some valuable but somehow lost. An important one was Harlequin in April – hailed by several writers in the 1950s as one of Cranko’s finest of the era. Last performed in 1959 it is now irretrievably lost.

In Cape Town, while choreographing his second ballet (Primavera), Cranko told his friend and designer Hanns Ebensten to refer to John Piper’s style. He was adamant that the design should not suggest Boticelli’s famous picture: “nothing to do with seashore or shells at all”.

A few years later when Cranko was living in London and choreographing for Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet he became close to John Piper and  his wife Myfanwy. They were like family to Cranko; he would often go down to the Pipers’ farmhouse near Henley to discuss ideas for his ballets, and Piper designed seven of them.

Cranko had in mind a fairly universal subject for Harlequin in April – Everyman’s journey through life: his birth, aspirations, disappointments and death, told through Commedia del’Arte characters; the protagonists were to be directly descended from Arlecchino, Columbina and the hapless Pedrolino.  The scenario that evolved fitted perfectly with the precepts of Piper’s romantic modernism. There can be no doubt that it was Piper’s concept for the stage design of Harlequin in April that helped cement Cranko’s disparate ideas, and the ballet was to become an important milestone in his career.

The set depicted a stage within a stage. It had a torn and tattered red velvet curtain which rose to reveal a romantic landscape with a gloomy void behind. The columns of the painted proscenium, their fluting and capitals expressed in line drawing rather than relief, were blackened and burnt.

The ballet was subtitled ‘Pantomime with Divertissements’, and originally the only indication of a plot consisted of some lines in the cast list describing the characters: Pierrot is the fool, the human muddler, sometimes likeable, sometimes interfering. Harlequin here represents human aspiration re-born with the flowers in April. This aspiration makes it possible for him to break away from the plants, who are earthbound and self-sufficient… The Unicorn, traditional guardian of chastity, represents the barrier which separated Harlequin from the perpetual promise of Columbine, his ideal. 

The original printed programme also quoted ten lines from the first two stanzas of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a poem eulogised by mid-century intellectuals. The quotation started with the well-known ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land…’. Far from lending the intended gravitas, the quotation added nothing but bewilderment about the ballet’s meaning. However, ‘understanding’ the poem proved to be unnecessary for most audiences, whose imaginations were stirred by the strange beauty of the ballet.

This ‘Pantomime with Divertissements’ marked a turning point in Cranko’s work while being quintessentially of its time. We can obtain at least a hazy sense of the qualities of the ballet with the help of the few photographs and by listening to Richard Arnell’s fine music.  It is a tragedy that no recording of the movement of Harlequin was made, even though, by the time of the 1959 revival, both film and notation were already in use at Covent Garden. By then Cranko’s reputation in England was in decline, but the loss of this ballet is a great pity.

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