In mid September 2023 I received information that contradicts a paragraph contained in the first and second editions of Cranko the Man and his Choreography (page 299). This information, regarding a letter from ten German dancers in the Stuttgart Ballet was drawn, with John Percival’s personal permission, from his 1983 biography of Cranko, Theatre in my Blood (pages 211-212).
Birgit Keil, a leading dancer with Stuttgart Ballet for many years, now assures me categorically that the wording quoted by the Stuttgarter Zeitung newspaper on 2 April 1969 was not in fact written nor signed by the dancers. It appears that the letter was a communication from an unknown source to the Landtag (state parliament) and subsequently published by the newspaper.
I apologise for any hurt caused to the named dancers.
From his childhood in South Africa to his unrealised projects: British author Ashley Killar, one time dancer in Stuttgart, has done extensive research for his biography on Stuttgart ballet founder John Cranko.
John Cranko? Hasn’t everything been said, written and soon told in a cinema film? The Stuttgart ballet audience not only knows the choreographer and his work very well, but the man behind him also remains present through discussions with contemporary witnesses and companions, even though he will have been dead for exactly half a century on 26 June.
There’s hardly any reason to miss a biography like this one presented, by Ashley Killar. “Cranko. The Man and His choreography” is the title of the 500-page book published by Matador at the end of last year. The author began his career as a dancer after training at the Royal Ballet School with John Cranko in Stuttgart, so he knows the choreographer and ballet director personally. After 1967, Ashley Killar, as he writes, took his enthusiasm for Cranko’s ethos and work with him to other stations such as director of the Royal Ballet of New Zealand.
Let me say this right away: even Cranko fans, whose knowledge would be enough for any one-million-euro quiz question, will read Killar’s book with profit, if their English is good enough. For in an equally extensive section, the author juxtaposes the well-documented Stuttgart ballet miracle with Cranko’s childhood and training as a dancer in South Africa as well as his early work as an aspiring choreographer in London. Quotations from letters and reviews provide a glimpse into the network that the gifted “Johnnie”, as Benjamin Britten called the choreographer, built up.
Ashley Killar goes to great lengths to describe this path. The parents’ origins, the sheltered childhood in Rustenburg, a city booming with mineral resources in South Africa, where Cranko’s father worked as a lawyer, the early enthusiasm for puppetry and theatre, the passion for ballet shared by the parents: Killar vividly sketches how Cranko and art came together at an early age, supported by father Herbert, accompanied by childhood friend Hanns Ebensten, his first designer.
Horror at apartheid
For Ashley Killar, Cranko’s moving humanity, which speaks from his work right up to his last ballets – “Song of my People” for the Batsheva Dance Company, “Initials” and “Traces” – also has its roots here: in horror at the injustice of the apartheid regime. After Cranko’s move to London in March 1946, Killar concentrates on his works; they give the book structure. The artist’s loneliness, his failure to find love, appear at most in letters or quotations from contemporaries. Instead of psychologising, the author keeps Cranko’s ballets in focus.
Hurt by Britten’s criticism
Initial successes such as “Pinapple Poll”, “The Lady and the Fool” and the revue “Cranks” are contrasted with flops by the choreographer whom Ninette de Valois tied to her Sadler’s Wells Ballet alongside Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan. It was above all the disappointment of his second collaboration with Benjamin Britten after the already painstakingly realised “Pagoda Prince” that probably made it easy for Cranko to move to Stuttgart in 1961. Britten’s letter to “Johnnie” after the latter’s production of the new opera “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a kind of list of faults which, as his reply shows, hurt the choreographer very much.
“There are really very few people you can love and build on,” Cranko told Britten. “And now I have lost something that is more precious than I can describe. We are so caught up in ourselves, but often it seems that the last people you can communicate with are the ones you want to be closest to.”
Cranko’s letter is among the impressive wealth of documents that Ashley Killar gathers. An extensive catalogue raisonné, a selection of letters such as the one to the artist John Piper, with whom Cranko worked in London, or his last one of 8 May 1973 to the composer Hans Werner Henze, elaborating on a “Tristan” project, annotations and Cranko’s synopses for programme notes make Killar’s biography a reference work that one wishes would be carefully translated into German.
Balancing on the precipice
In one of the last chapters, Ashley Killar describes the precipice along which Cranko balanced in the early 1970s, threatened by alcohol and depression. The suicides of his musical companions Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Kurt-Heinz Stolze left their mark: There is the confrontation with death in pieces like “Orpheus” and “Carmen”, the turmoil between success and artistic ambition, Cranko’s early testament.
Cranko left behind unrealised projects
The choreographer’s sudden death, choking on vomit under the influence of sleeping pills on a flight back from a tour of the USA, tragically occurred when Cranko had “regained his old optimism”, as Killar writes.Ballet concepts, some of them far advanced, remained unrealised: an “Othello” in the planned set by John Piper, “Le diable au corps” with Jürgen Rose and a realisation of the myth of Tristan and Isolde intended as a trilogy with Henze.
Research Ashley Killar travelled four times from Sydney, where the author lives, to Europe for his book between 2016 and 2020.In London, he researched at the V&A Theatre Archive, the Royal Opera House and Sadler’s Wells, among other places.He visited Stuttgart three times and also spent a week in Tel Aviv to learn about “Song of my People”, Cranko’s ballet for the Batsheva Dance Company.
Andrea Kachelrieß, translated by DeepL
The gala on 30 June, at which the company honours its founder – among other things with a reconstructed excerpt from his last ballet “Spuren” – is sold out.
Ashley Killar: Cranko.The Man and His Biography.Matador Publishing.513 pages. £29.95 (approx. 46 Euros)
When I was told that that there is a Cranko Road in Cape Town, I followed some leads back to a ship’s master, Johannes Karel Krankoor. In 1652 he arrived from the Netherlands in his ship that was part of the fleet, led by Jan van Reebeek on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. They sailed to the strategically valuable harbour at the southern tip of Africa. Krankoor was granted land, and he built a home in District Six, the Cape Town suburb now called Observatory. He married his seamstress, Dorothea, and changed his name to Cranko, ostensibly to avoid matrimonial repercussions from Holland! The road where he and Dorthea lived was named after him – and Cranko Road remains to this day.
Can anyone verify this story? I have put the facts together from reliable sources, but any further information would be welcome!
Reading Ashley Killar’s compelling biography, Cranko: The man and his choreography, feels like studying the modernisation of ballet in three countries, the way ballet eats up lives as often as it forms families of peers and lovers, and the unending devotion required for creativity to flourish. It is pleasing to learn how a determined man with an ever-rattling mind, backed by a calm, philosophical manager, could challenge opera house dominance to make the Stuttgart Ballet an independent entity, with its own school supported by a philanthropic institution named after the city’s first ballet master of the 1750s, Jean-Georges Noverre, whom David Garrick called ‘the Shakespeare of the dance’.
John Cranko’s primary concern was for ballet to be as alive as anything Shakespeare put on stage, and that’s how, during Stuttgart Ballet’s Australian tour in 1974, critics saw his two big ballets, The Taming of the Shrew (Scarlatti) and Onegin (Tchaikovsky-Stolze), as well as short works Jeu de Cartes(Stravinsky), Brouillards (Debussy), and Act Two of Swan Lake. A fourth ballet, Voluntaries (Poulenc), was created by guest artist Glen Tetley to honour Cranko, who had died on a flight back to Germany after a successful US tour in 1973, aged forty-five. Although Romeo and Juliet and Onegin remain in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire, Stuttgart Ballet has never returned to Australia.
Born in South Africa, Cranko was one of the most adventurous choreographers to graduate from London’s Royal Ballet School after World War II. A precocious child enthralled by music – such as Stravinsky’s Firebird, which his parents saw in London danced by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1924 – he made puppets so cleverly that he was given a theatre for marionettes, for which he sewed colourful costumes by hand. Innately theatrical, imaginative, and mercurial, he was determined to make narrative ballets. His first was The Soldier’s Tale, inspired by Stravinsky’s 1918 score, made for the Capetown Ballet Club. He was just seventeen, and away from his Johannesburg home was exposed to a world of artists, gay bars, and camp chatter.
His father, Herbert Cranko, supported his endeavours, finding new mentors and encouraging his hunger for theatre and ballet, despite his wife’s initial disapproval. In time, working hard as a student, then as a member of Sadlers Wells Theatre Ballet (now the Royal Ballet), Cranko was mentored by their insightful ballet mistress, Peggy van Praagh, and observed two Diaghilev favourites, Tamara Karsavina and Léonide Massine, coaching dancers for opening nights. In thirteen years Cranko created some forty ballets for the Wells, Royal Ballet and Royal Opera companies, including Pineapple Poll, a romantic comedy by young Australian conductor Charles Mackerras, to a pastiche from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Savoy Operas, and The Prince of the Pagodas, with new music by Benjamin Britten infused with Balinese gamelans. Many more productions would follow with many designers, beginning with his first boyfriend, Hanns Ebensten.
By 1959, still mourning his father, who had died the previous year, Cranko was burning out and soon became persona non grata. Several flops, and the sniping at the Royal Ballet, fuelled by artistic director Ninette de Valois, had depressed him, as did his shaming for public procuring. He pleaded guilty, was fined, and released. Collectively these burdens drove Cranko from England to Stuttgart, where he had friends and the potential to reposition himself.
Ashley Killar is another Royal Ballet School graduate. In 1962, he began his peripatetic career at the Stuttgart Ballet, where Cranko was expanding the repertoire and promoting, expressionism, and a culturally diverse ensemble. His first three-act ballet Romeo and Juliet was in its final rehearsal stage. Battling snowstorms, the ‘green’ Killar arrived just in time to watch the rehearsal and to pass his audition the following day. His crystalline memories of those weeks, and the success of Romeo, are carefully laid out, juxtaposing the man who needed a family of artists to care for him with the man determined to revolutionise the world’s conventional expectations, who shaped every one of his dancers to be better and braver in every ballet and still be themselves, no matter how delicate or strong they were.
Privately, Cranko was dreadfully lonely. The early years of drinking into the night with dancers and friends in the local Greek Café had passed as his workload expanded. Without his general manager, Dr Walter Schäfer, his personal manager Dieter Gräfe, and all his principals behind him, he would not have lasted long. Critics in Germany were as caustic as the British, until they appreciated Cranko’s agenda. In the United States, Balanchine and the New Yorker’s spiky Arlene Croce dumped on him, while showbiz potentate Sol Hurok provided the Stuttgart dancers with many stages to satisfy the audiences who clamoured for them.
Depression and fatigue dominated Cranko’s last years. Killar is sensitive about the early friendships that collapsed. This was followed by the suicide of his music arranger, Kurt-Heinz Stolze, and the death of his adored stepmother. Even artists John Piper and his wife, Myfanwy, his first ‘family’ away from home, faded from his life.
In a more analytic mode, Killar investigates selected ballets to understand how Cranko succeeded or failed to achieve his expectations. As an observant insider and experienced director, Killar is well placed to put each work in context. A collection of letters, like the political timeline in the repertoire catalogue, illustrate the conditions in which each work was made. This may seem rather clinical, but it is greatly illuminating and reveals how Cranko changed the aesthetics of European ballet and produced a new breed of gifted choreographers, dancers, and designers.
During Cranko’s career, his quest for poetic images took many and various paths. Cranks was a revue that he devised, wrote and staged. He teamed up with the composer John Addison whose plangent musical wit was a perfect match for the show’s zany inventions.
When working on La Belle Hélène in Paris, Cranko had visited several of the clubs and tiny cellar theatres that put on cabaret and revues. Back in London he went to see a revue at the tiny New Watergate Theatre. The manager asked what he thought of the show. He was dubious. ‘If you think you can do better the theatre is dark in six weeks and it’ll be yours if you can do it’.The show opened with self-introductions by the four players. Their real names are jumbled, identities mixed. They question where, as a cast of performers, belong in the world:
Are we poets or peasants? /Nice Christmas presents?/ Dancers or singers? /Do we belong to clubs? / Get drunk in pubs? What is it we’re about?
In the second number, Adrift, the cast go on to question their personal identities. Trite as this and the rest of the doggerel is, it’s especially amusing when delivered in John Addison’s mock-madrigal style. The sound recording of Cranks is still available. In one of my favourite numbers A Little Cove in Hove, the singer is quietly and professionally bandaged like a mummy from toe to head and then carried off, still singing. Great fun.
The four performers had deliberately mixed strengths, each a pronounced talent; there was Marcia Ashton (later Annie Ross); the African-American, Gordon Heath, Anthony Newley (twenty or more non-singing films behind him); and the stalwart Sadler’s Wells dancer Gilbert Vernon who, when I started researching my book told me about the occasion of the first performance: ‘In Tannhauser at Covent Garden (he had just appeared with Julia Farron in the opening Venusburg scene) I didn’t have to take a curtain call.I ran down to the Strand to get ready for the first night of Cranks. It seemed a bit flat, but the next day – the notices! Played an extra month and transferred to the West End’. Cranks the revue, probably more than any ballet, led to John Cranko’s name becoming well known among the general public in 1955.
The great dramatic dancer Lynn Seymour died recently. I love this picture taken when Cranko mounted his Card Game for the Royal Ballet in 1966. The Joker is Christoper Gable and the lady on the far left is Dorothea Zippel, Stuttgart-born designer of the ballet. The Two of Diamonds is of course Lynn Seymour, and on Cranko’s left, the Queen of Hearts, is that other wonderful comedienne, Annette Page, who died in 2017. Both ballerinas spent time in Germany: Lynn as leading dancer when MacMillan ran the West Berlin company and briefly as director in Munich. Annette also lived in Munich for a while when her husband, Ronald Hynd, was director of that company. When Cranko gave up trying to direct both the Munich and Stuttgart Ballet companies, he asked Ronnie to take over.
I’m trying to brush up my very rusty German language skills before our visit to Stuttgart later this year. As you probably know, those little pronouns der, die and das – der Mann, die Frau, das Wetter – signify the gender of everything from bird to bee to table to chair. Novices like me soon begin to ask why, oh why is there no real logic to the given genders? You’d think ‘the girl’ would be the feminine ‘die’ but no, it’s das Mädchen and the coffee shop is das café. Strange, in a language that is otherwise so ordered.
Limelight is Australia’s leading arts magazine and even though my name was mis-spelled in the headline, the 5 stars were very welcome! It was lovely to read Jansson J. Antmann‘s review starting “Ashley Killar’s biography of choreographer John Cranko is much more than a monograph for aficionados; it’s a page-turner told against a backdrop rich in historical detail”. See www.crankobiography.com /blog posts
My copy of the DVD of Cranko’s The Taming of the Shrew arrived the other day. Well filmed, with the myriad of jokes (some of which can be easily missed in a stage performance) piling up. The many moments of tenderness come over well, too. Amazing how a fifty year old comedy is still so fresh!
That’s all for now.
PS I recently put together some memorabilia about Napac Dance Company on the web. The company was based in Durban, capital of Natal Kwa-Zulu in South Africa. During our second year, guests included Patricia Neary, Jonas Kage and Deborah Dobson. Another guest that year was Reid Anderson, who came to mount Cranko’s Brouillards and The Lady and the Fool. (Reid later became director of Stuttgart Ballet, until his retirement in 2017.)
The photos and articles about Napac Dance Co on the web have already prompted quite a few responses from former dancers and others connected with the Natal Performing Arts Council in the 1980s. One of them was the theatre’s music librarian, Robin Gordon-Powell. He now works in the music library at the Royal Opera House in London – in the very same job that my father used to do! Small world, indeed.
I’ve always been interested in how some theatrical works survive the years, and some do not. Giacomo Meyerbeer, for example, was probably the most famous opera composer of the middle years of the 19th century, but you would be hard pressed to find a single performance of one of his works today. Likewise, in ballet (that most ephemeral of the performing arts), former choreographic giants such as Léonide Massine are now just names in history books.
That could have been the fate of choreographer John Cranko had he not decided to leave The Royal Ballet in the early 1960s, where he was already an established name, to work with the Stuttgart Ballet. His decision proved his salvation, as, within a decade, the company he nurtured gained an international reputation as well as a repertoire that included Romeo and Juliet, Onegin and Taming of the Shrew. To this day, Stuttgart Ballet remains loyal to Cranko’s memory and ethos, and continues to perform not only his full-length ballets, but many of his one-act creations as well. If it had been left to The Royal Ballet, however, we would probably, if we were lucky, only know Cranko’s work from a single comedy ballet, Pineapple Poll.
Cranko died suddenly at the age of just 45 in 1973, and to mark the 50th anniversary of his death, Ashley Killar, a former dancer with the Stuttgart company whilst Cranko was director, has written an enjoyable and enlightening new biography of the man. Titled Cranko: The Man and His Choreography, it is a more insightful portrait than John Percival’s earlier Theatre in My Blood, which was highly partial, especially in its depiction of Cranko’s fellow choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, whom Percival did not admire.
It could be argued that Killar’s book is also partial. It is written with love and affection for the man, but the author has not shied away from noting the choreographer’s insecurities, nor from stating that not all his ballets were works of genius. Above all, it underlines the fact that Cranko was a chatty, intelligent, funny and amiable gay man, as well as a supportive father figure to many of his dancers. Cranko was, however, also very lonely – it appears he was never able to sustain a happy, loving, long-term relationship with another man.
Born in South Africa in 1927, Cranko became interested in ballet through his parents who, when he was growing up, told him stories of the performances they had seen in London during the 1920s by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the Anna Pavlova company. He grew up loving music, art and drama, creating his own marionettes and puppet theatre, and later on taking up ballet. Indeed, Herbert, his father, seems to have been a remarkably open-minded man for the time, not only encouraging his son in his study of ballet, but also being very tolerant of his homosexuality. (Cranko’s mother Grace, who divorced Herbert in 1946, was more conventional in outlook, and it is interesting to note that he did not tell his mother he was gay until much later in his life.) Cranko’s interest in puppetry led to a passion for choreography, and early on in his dance training, ultimately with Dulcie Howes, he began creating his own works, including an ambitious version of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale.
Realising it would be extremely difficult to achieve his ambitions in South Africa, in March 1946 Cranko travelled to London, where he joined the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School. He came to the notice of Ninette de Valois, who offered him walk-on parts in The Sleeping Beauty at Covent Garden, and then a contract with the newly-formed Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, where he danced and eventually began to choreograph. De Valois, always on the lookout for new choreographic talent, encouraged Cranko in his early works, and advised him to learn from other choreographers, especially Frederick Ashton and Massine. Cranko also came to revere the works of George Balanchine.
As Killar notes, however, Cranko was not a creator of “steps”, of pure dance works, being more interested in working with the dancers as people. He built up a body of character-based works centring around stories and situations, and he had a particular talent for comedy, as exemplified in Pineapple Poll, a smash hit in 1951, and The Lady and the Fool. He was, essentially, a demi-caractère choreographer. He devised the acclaimed musical revue Cranks, and was an adventurous collaborator, commissioning stage designs for his ballets from artists such as the painter John Piper and the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster, and choreographing to music by Benjamin Britten. He and Britten were friends, although their relationship cooled somewhat after their collaboration on the three-act Prince of the Pagodas in 1957.
Pagodas was considered a disappointment at the time (although looking back now, it seems much of the problem with the ballet was actually Britten’s refusal to make musical cuts to his long score), and Cranko began to feel that he was being side-lined by The Royal Ballet, especially after he was convicted for “persistently importuning men for an immoral purpose” in 1959 (homosexual acts between men remained a criminal offence in the UK until 1969). Working more often abroad, Cranko sensed that perhaps his future lay somewhere other than London, hence his decision to leave following an invitation to lead Stuttgart Ballet in 1961. There, he gathered around him people he admired and liked to work with, including dancers Marcia Haydée, Ray Barra, Egon Madsen, Richard Cragun and Birgit Keil, designers Jürgen Rose and Elisabeth Dalton, and teachers Peter Wright and Anne Woolliams. He built the company up from a provincial “opera ballet” to a company of international stature, and also encouraged the work of other choreographers, not only MacMillan (who made Las Hermanas and Song of the Earth on the Stuttgart company), but John Neumeier and Jiří Kylián as well.
Whatever you may think of Cranko as a choreographer (I admit I’m not an admirer of either his Romeoor Taming of the Shrew), Killar is good at describing a number of works you might wish you could have seen, including Spuren (Traces), one of Cranko’s last creations, and – like all good biographers – he makes you want to learn more about the subject, not less (something that cannot be said of Jennifer Homans’ overrated Mr B, George Balanchine’s Twentieth Century, which I happily would have flung across the room with force on several occasions while reading it). Speaking personally, I would like to have learned more about Cranko’s life as a gay man during a period of great social change, but it’s possible Killar was unable to contact or talk to the people who really knew about that part of his life. Cranko, however, comes alive in Killar’s biography, leaving you wondering what he may have gone on to achieve had he not died so tragically young.
Rapturous reviews and lovely complements from around the world are starting to come in, using words like ‘mesmerising’ (Sichel) ‘superbly written’ (Chisholm) and meticulous detail (Shennan). And I was chuffed to hear from David Hallberg, artistic director of Australian Ballet who wrote “bravo on such a great accomplishment. My deep congratulations…”
Veteran dance writer Shiela Chisholm writes from Cape Town : “Research supplies facts. But research alone cannot produce a work of this calibre that describes Cranko’s ballets, backed by magnificent photographs, and details stories behind them so knowledgeably that it brings them alive into one’s reading room …. In a lifetime of reading biographies I have never once read one that so vividly paints such clarity defining portraits of a man’s genius – on all Arts related subjects – love affairs, wit and idiosyncrasies. Unlike many biographies (and auto-biographies) this is a real page turner. A superbly written book bringing alive a man and his life works……”
Writing from New Zealand in ‘….on Dancing’ Jennifer Shennan thought “… There is meticulous detail in the documentation and analysis of Cranko’s vast choreographic output, both within the text and in appendices. Ashley Killar has drawn on that oeuvre, as well as many of Cranko’s letters to friends and colleagues, to evaluate the teeming imagination and artistry, musical ear, lively sense of wit and satire, the devoted loyalty to friends and colleagues, the generous personality, the frankness over frustrations when things went wrong, the ability to move on to the next thing, the excesses in a sometimes reckless lifestyle — all the good and some of the bad in a life fully lived but ended too soon. You come to know the man through coming to know his works, not just by reading a list of titles but by experiencing the texture and timing of the choreographies. That’s skilful dance writing. https://michellepotter.org/reviews/cranko-the-man-and-his-choreography-book-review/
Ballerina Vicki Attard joined me to discuss Cranko’s ballets.
Vicki Attard has danced each of Cranko’s three great ballerina roles to rapturous acclaim. Juliet is her top favourite, but Tatiana (in Onegin) and Katherina in Taming of the Shrew come close. At the recent launch, Vicki spoke of these roles as perfect gifts to the ballerina. She has always been recognised as a great actress ballerina, and I think Cranko would have loved her. Now that she is teaching in Sydney, her students are indeed fortunate to have a teacher of such experience.
The dance wear chain Bloch kindly organised a book launch party at their flagship store in Sydney’s York St. Vicki and I were interviewed by president of the Ballet Society, Greg Khourey. Here is a video snippet from our wide-ranging discussion.
The event was attended by friends and family, with members of the Ballet Society and some of the country’s ballet elite: David McAllister, Yulia Furnas, Robyn Ross, Archie MacKenzie, Kit Lethby, Hilary Kaplan, Shane Carroll, Adrian Burnett and Peroozi Desai-Keene were among the guests. There were many others, too numerous to list here. Thanks to Sandie Windsor-Richards and her staff for a fun-filled evening.
It seems that most theatre bookshops are run by private concerns (I know of one that relies on Airport Giftshop suppliers for its stock). As a result they are full of souvenirs and trinkets, and, in the case of ballet-related goods for children, the items are inevitable pink or glittery. Isn’t it lovely when theatre shops stock books that have some relation to what is on their stage! Better still when they are open and accessible for browsing before the show and during intervals.
Instead of fostering the long term benefit of educated audiences, short term profit is too often the order of the day.
If you agree with me, and your local theatre shop falls short, please pester the manager. No point simply accepting philistine attitudes!
Jean-Georges Noverre and John Cranko Not many people realise that Stuttgart (halfway between Paris and Vienna) was famous for ballet 200 years before Cranko worked there.
Radical reforms took place in Stuttgart during both the 1760s and the 1960s. Ballet’s first famed reformer, Jean-Georges Noverre, worked as director of ballet at the court of Duke Karl-Eugen of Württemberg, attracting the greatest dancers of the era.
The troupe was was headed byJean Dauberval who, as a choreographer, was later to continue Noverre’s reforms brilliantly in ballets such as the original La Fille mal gardée. A nucleus of Noverre’s dancers trained in Paris, but there were Italians, English, Austrians with, as in Stuttgart two hundred years later, the composition of dancers was truly international.
Noverre’s 18th century equivalent of Cranko’s prima ballerina Marcia Haydéewas Nancy Levier who arrived from London in July 1761. She was praised as having “acquired the art of speaking through dance” .
It was David Garrick, Drury Lane’s acclaimed actor-manager of the day who called Noverre “the Shakespeare of dance”.Gaetano Vestris, a leading male dancer, took leave from Paris to appear in Stuttgart every year during Noverre’s tenure. Two hundred years later dancers such as Rudolf Nureyev, Erik Bruhn, Carla Fracci and Margot Fonteyn made guest appearances with Cranko’s budding company.
All the dancers who worked with Noverre seem to have regarded their master with high esteem, as we did John 200 years later. Dauberval went on to teach luminaries such as August Bournonville, Charles Didelot and Salvatore Vigano. Likewise, a number of choreographers emerged from Cranko’s company, most famouslyJohn Neumeierand Jiři Kylián. It is astonishing to realise that Noverre and Cranko, two centuries apart, each mentored dancers so successfully in the same provincial town. Must be something in the air…
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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Well, the best laid plans of mice & men… and in this case a book. My “perfectionist tendency” (my wife’s description) led me to add certain information into the already somewhat large Appendices section of my book, which in turn affected the page numbering and in turn part of the Index. This has meant a delay to the final proof reading. The official publication date is now 28 November, but it might be ready earlier. There won’t be an embargo, so I’ll let you know ….
This month Egon Madsen, one of the four principal dancers Cranko particularly loved to work with in Stuttgart (the other three being Marcia Haydee, Richard Cragun & Birgit Keil ) celebrates his 80th birthday. You can watch a fine short film in tribute to his long (and continuing!) career on YouTube here:
Marcia Haydée, Cranko’s prima ballerina is world famous for creating many roles (unforgettably) in Cranko’s works in Stuttgart, and was also the most important continuing influence to Cranko’s ballet legacy long after his death. However, little is spoken now of Cranko’s very first muse, Patricia Miller. You will read about her in my book, but here are a few facts about her life: Patricia Millar was born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1927. Like Cranko, she received much of her ballet training from Dulcie Howes & Cecily Robinson at the University of Cape Town Ballet School. She went to London in 1947 to join the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School and – again like Cranko – after a short time joined the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet. It was for this company that Cranko choreographed his first ballets in England and Patricia Miller created a number of roles in these works – Beauty in Beauty & the Beast; Mademoiselle Piquant in Children’s Corner; Phillida in Pastorale; Columbine in Harlequin in April; a Lover in Reflection; and the Lady in TheLady & the Fool.
She was a finely built, delicate dancer with a close to perfect “ballet physique”; lovely but strong feet; classic line and poised head. Patricia danced many principal roles from the classic repertoire and toured with SWBT to the USA, Canada, Rhodesia (as it was then) and South Africa. She went on to dance in various parts of South Africa and after retiring in 1973 became joint Artistic Director (with her husband, Dudley Davies) of Napac Ballet in Durban until that company closed in 1976. She and Dudley had four children.
During my research for the book I spoke to Patricia a few times on the phone (she was living in the US) and she wrote to me. Unfortunately she died a few months after our conversations. She seemed a delightful person and I wish I could show her my completed book of the man she so inspired at the beginning of his career. Here is a beautiful portrait of Patricia Millar taken by the famous London photographer Baron in the 1950’s. She is in costume for the role of Columbine, which she created in Cranko’s Harlequin in April (More about this important ballet in another Blog)
Never write a book!! A short time ago I was excitedly telling everyone “only a month until my book comes out”. But when I was checking a final proof at the end of August, I decided to add some information to the Appendix. My wife says I’m crazy (probably true) as this will delay the book by a few weeks – but as I have spent over 7 years on this book it is worth a few weeks to include the additional information.
The official publication date is now 28th Nov., but it will almost definitely be ready earlier – These blogs will always carry the latest news of availability, special discounts, and more!
Meanwhile, if you are ever thinking of writing a book – brace yourself!
The plains to the north-west of Johannesburg, city of gold, extend far beyond the labyrinth of mines and the ugly spoil heaps. The sweeping grasslands of the highveld where giraffe, springbok and zebra herds once roamed unfurl to meet the Magaliesberg mountain range. There, nestling into a fertile valley of the foothills lay the community of Rustenburg. Occasional settlers would reach the area with their oxen and horses. Seventy miles of dirt tracks isolated them from Johannesburg, and the major seaport of Cape Town was many weeks’ trek to the south.
At first Rustenburg grew unhurriedly, but when, soon after the First World War, prospectors discovered platinum and iron ore deposits in the region, speculators from far and wide began to arrive. They came from the coal and tin mines of Europe, and some of the more skilled men became mine managers. Others who followed during the 1920s found use for their experience as engineers, builders, solicitors, and the like; their wives made homes as best they could in the new environment. Indian families arrived from the sugar fields of Natal, the so-called Coloureds, mixed race people from the Cape, migrated north, and Chinese traders opened shops. Not unexpectedly, the adventurers, crooks and philanderers came too.
The managers brought in indigenous Africans to do the hardest physical work, some of whom had already laboured in the diamond pits of the Kimberley and the gold mines of Johannesburg. Virtually slaves, they found themselves relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy by the Coloureds, Indians and the new immigrants and their families from Europe, not to mention the long-established Boers, who considered themselves more virtuous than everyone else.
John’s father, Herbert Cranko later wrote that the white people, who then numbered half the population of Rustenburg, were ‘of many different origins and races, and also bitterly divided’.
Herbert’s father Frederick Cranko (formerly Krankoor) married Bilhah Solomon Jacobson, a matriarch who raised their six children in the Jewish faith. Herbert was the youngest. The family scattered to the USA and Australasia as well as throughout South Africa, and Herbert visited Australia when he was about sixteen – the beginning of his love of travel. He qualified in law before going to fight in France from 1917, but, once home again he began to practise law with one of his elder brothers. Before long he went off to Vienna, ostensibly for further law studies, but, reading between the lines of his journal, this was a time of sowing wild oats. Back in Johannesburg, the debonair Herbert met a divorcee, Grace Martin. According to Grace ‘lightning struck’, and after a courtship of only three weeks, they married. She must have hoped that her new husband would provide security for herself and her six-year-old daughter, Peggy.
Grace seems to have craved bourgeois respectability, but adventurers surrounded her. Her sister, Stella van Druten, was married to Major Chaplin Court Treatt, who planned to lead the first expedition by motor vehicles from the Cape to Cairo. Stella enthusiastically supported him, and they found a kindred spirit in Herbert, who readily offered to help with planning. Detailed arrangements had to be made for the convoy’s supplies on its route through the red-coloured, British areas on the map; but first they needed to seek financial sponsorship from British businesses. Armed with a letter of support from the prime minister, Jan Smuts, the two couples and young Peg boarded a ship to England. Soon after their arrival in London in 1924, the Crankos saw performances by Diaghilev’s ultra-fashionable Ballets Russes. The romantic Les Sylphides, Le Tricorne with its amazing Picasso designs, and the fabled Petrouchka captivated them. More ballet was on offer in 1925. Anna Pavlova and her company performed at Covent Garden for the whole of October, and the great dancer enchanted everyone who saw her. The Ballets Russes returned to the London Coliseum for two long seasons, and the South African couple booked for as many performances as they could afford. There was the glamorous fairy tale Aurora’s Wedding, and the new Les Biches, presented in London for the first time, and they did not want to miss seeing the Russian warriors in Polovtsian Dances. Ballet became a shared, abiding passion for Herbert and Grace, and they sent Grace’s daughter Peg to classes with Princess Serafina Astafieva at her studio on the King’s Road.
By the middle of 1926, the Cape to Cairo expedition successfully accomplished, Herbert’s work in London was complete. Reluctantly, he returned to South Africa where he was to arrange a tour of lectures about his brother-in-law’s pioneering adventure, illustrated by slides and moving pictures.
Herbert had intended to re-join his wife and stepdaughter, probably to set up home in London, but when he received Grace’s cablegram to say she was pregnant he reconsidered, no doubt anxious about how he would provide for his growing family. He decided to set up a country law practice in Rustenburg, where his eldest brother ran a hotel; the town was expanding rapidly, and Herbert had an eye for the main chance. He cabled Grace that she and Peg should return on the next available ship.
Reunited, they settled into the modest hotel that had once belonged to Herbert’s mother, the Rustenburg Grand, to await the birth of the new baby. The intoxicating thrill of London’s theatres seemed a million miles away.
Herbert grew fond of Rustenburg and the surrounding area; his law practice, which represented people from all backgrounds, grew to extend ‘from the middle veld north of the Magaliesberg Mountains to the bank of the Crocodile River bordering Bechuanaland’. Expecting to ‘suffer the tedium of a few years living in the backfield’, Herbert found that, ‘against all expectations I had wandered into a bewilderingly interesting, exciting and varied world’.
Herbert was no longer religious, and Grace had ‘accepted Herbert’s assurances that the Crankos were not Jews’. However, she made sure that their son, born in Rustenberg’s hospital on 15 August 1927, was ‘circumcised by the doctor not by a rabbi.’ She stressed that John ‘was baptised in the Church of England. So, by all standards except for his paternal grandmother he was of Christian religion’.
Grace wrote that John was a bubbly infant, always talking to himself, and that he ‘found everything a huge joke’. In early childhood he was never far from his adored horses, dogs, cats, and other animals, in a sunny, outdoor life. He heard euphoric accounts of exotic ballets from his parents, and some of the first music he listened to was a gramophone record of The Firebird.
John grew up as part of South Africa’s dominant classes; theirs was a life of relative privilege, a life eased by the comforts bought by the cheap labour of maids and gardeners. According to Grace, it was only because she chose to take a clerical post in the town that she employed a nursemaid for John. ‘In those days of growing up I was not allowed’ [by Herbert] ‘to check or discipline John in any way, and he always had white nannies so you see John was not left to the tender mercies of Black servants at any time.’ Grace did employ a white nanny from Switzerland for a while, but later John was most certainly left in the care of an indigenous black woman, like nearly every other white South African child.
Rustenburg was particularly conservative and divided, the whites living in the town, the blacks on the periphery. The streets of the white area were subject to a curfew after nine in the evening, and Black people were required by law to carry special documents from their employers, officials or the police. If, from time to time, the Crankos’ maid Evelyn did not appear for work at the Cranko household, it meant that the police had detained her for being without her pass. Herbert would have to vouch for her release from custody.
When John, as a small child, went with his father on trips to visit clients at outlying kraals and farmsteads, he quickly saw that in the eyes of adults, the indigenous African was subordinate to even the most ineffectual of masters. John talked of his youth shortly before he died, and he remembered his family’s maid especially well; ‘Evelyn was, for me, almost a mother figure, psychologically very important’. She and other black South Africans were the first to teach him art. He learned how to paint stones with natural colours from the earth. Evelyn and the very young John made clay model figures together, and she showed him how the long thorns from acacia trees could become the horns of miniature oxen.
(You can cut and paste the crossword and clues to fill in the answers)
The 50th anniversary of Cranko’s death falls in 2023
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.
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.
Me, aged 18, watching you make a point in rehearsal
“My Escalopes a la Creme are childishly simple, perfect when one has to entertain with no preparation time…and they taste as if one were the subtlest of chefs.”
John Cranko’s Escalopes a la Crème
2 lbs. veal cutlets, sliced very thin
salt, pepper, paprika
1/4 Cup butter
1 Cup heavy cream
Season cutlets with salt, pepper, and paprika. Heat a heavy skillet and sear cutlets quickly on both sides. Remove from skillet and set aside. Lower heat, add butter, and scrape browned bits from the pan. Add cutlets to skillet with cream. Heat, but do not bring to a boil. Cook 3-5 minutes or until cutlets are tender. Serve garnished with chopped parsley. Serves 4-6.
John Cranko’s Galette de pommes de terre
4-6 medium potatoes
1/2 Cup butter
salt and pepper to taste
Peel potatoes with a vegetable peeler. Discard peel and continue using peeler to form shavings from the potatoes (or grate on a very large grater). Melt butter in a heavy skillet, add potatoes, and cook over low heat, pressing with a spatula to form a pancake. Season with salt and pepper and continue cooking until potatoes are tender and the underside golden brown; add more butter if necessary. Loosen with a spatula to make sure they do not stick to the pan. Turn galette over carefully and brown the other side. Serves 4-6.
from Tanaquil Le Clercq’s The Ballet Cook Book, Stein and Day, 1966
Rustenburg, South Africa, is situated at the foot of the Magaliesburg mountains, about a hundred miles from Johannesburg, the city of gold. After the first world war, iron ore and platinum deposits were found in the Rustenburg area and the town attracted prospectors from as far afield as Europe and Russia.
Shortly after John’s parents married they too moved to Rustenburg, and Herbert set up his solicitor’s business in the burgeoning town. His wife Grace came from a family of adventurers (her sister, Stella Court-Treatt took part in the first Cape to Cairo motor expedition) but Grace herself was conventional and rigidly conservative in her views. Her second husband, John’s father, was a far more flamboyant character, something of a philanderer. The first chapter of Cranko: theman and his choreography describes their opposing natures (“like oil and water” according to John). The book describes how first Grace and Herbert, and then John and his mother grew estranged. John was far closer to the family’s African maid Evelyn, who was the first to teach him art.
Marionettes and dance
Having moved the family to Johannesburg, Grace and Herbert Cranko separated when John was ten. He absconded from boarding school twice, and ended up staying with his father where he received every encouragement to pursue his interest in theatre and marionettes. When a touring group of dancers from Cape Town performed in Johannesburg John was swept up in it all and took a serious interest in his ballet lessons. When the opportunity arose for him to study at the University of Cape Town’s school of dance he saw an opportunity to make his first ballets … he had no ambitions as a classical dancer.
Dulcie Howes had founded the Ballet School at the University of Cape Town, and was immediately aware of his talent. She told John that there might be an opportunity to choreograph for the ballet company attached to her school.
He worked hard in his ballet classes (excelling in pas de deux) and in 1944 earned the chance to make his first ballet, The Soldier’s Tale. Stravinsky’s score was unpleasantly acerbic to 1940s ears, and the conductor had to explain to the audience that the sounds from the pit were as written, not the players’ wrong notes. When John appeared as the Devil, disguised as a girl with horns pointing through a blonde wig, few of the audience were amused.
In the book you can read John’s letters to his friend Hanns Ebensten. Hanns designed the set and costumes for Soldier’s Tale plus the next four of John’s ballets. These letters are not only very entertaining but revealing, too. They tell us much about the character of the man who was soon to delight London audiences with Pineapple Poll and much, much more.
Cranko was a close friend of the English artist and stage designer John Piper, and would often visit the Piper family at their farmhouse near Henley. I was extremely fortunate to unearth several long-forgotten letters to John Piper and his wife Myfanwy in the archives of Tate Britain. Some of them, like the following one, are very funny – others reveal heartfelt feelings. Nearly all the letters to the Pipers appear in my book.
In 1954 Cranko mounted Pineapple Poll in Melbourne. On the long flight back to England there was a stopover at Singapore, and from there he wrote (on Raffles Hotel notepaper) to John and Myfanwy Piper.
As a teenager in South Africa, Cranko wrote frequent letters to his adolescent friend and first stage designer, Hanns Ebensten. Ten of these letters are included in Cranko the Man and hisChoreography and part of one appears below.
Cranko and Hanns Ebensten met in Johannesburg when they were aged seventeen and twenty-one respectively. While their homosexuality and their Jewish blood kindled their friendship, it was their mutual delight in devising marionette shows, later ballets, that drew them together. Shortly after they met, Cranko moved to Cape Town to study there, and Ebensten designed Cranko’s The Soldier’s Tale and two more of his pieces for the University of Cape Town Ballet. Cranko then left South Africa for London and Ebensten followed soon after. There, after designing two more ballets for Cranko, he saw that even well-established stage designers found difficulty making ends meet and decided that this was not a career that he would pursue any further.
Here is the first page of an early letter (he was sixteen) from Cranko to Hanns, drawn from the dozen or so that appear in the book.
Cranko’s correspondence ranges in tone from thoroughly miserable to exultant – and one to the composer Benjamin Britten is particularly moving in its intensity of feeling. You will find a wealth of Cranko’s letters in Cranko: the Man and his Choreography.