Cranko’s youth & a first ballet


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: the man 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

Herbert Cranko, John’s father.

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.

John with one of the marionettes he had made himself

Cape Town

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.

John as the Devil in his The Soldier’s Tale.


Cranko correspondence

Miserable to exultant

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.

Cranko’s letter to the Pipers from Singapore

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 his Choreography 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.

part of a letter to Hanns Ebensten

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.