The lonely father
3 January 2023 by Jonathan Gray in Gramilano
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.