Great review for Cranko book from leading German critic

Stuttgarter Nachrichten online, 20.06.2023

Oh, Johnnie! 

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)