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John Cranko unpacked: A career in clips

Our quick guide to the South African choreographer, creator of Onegin.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

22 January 2015 at 6.02pm | 1 Comment

Within the repertory of The Royal Ballet, John Cranko is by far and away best known for Onegin. Admittedly it's one of his finest works, a captivating retelling of Pushkin's social tragedy. But there's far more to Cranko than just one ballet.

John Cranko was born in Rustenberg, South Africa, in 1927. He began his training there but in 1945 moved to London to study with Ninette de Valois at Sadler's Wells Ballet School (now The Royal Ballet School). Almost as soon as he arrived he was invited to join Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet (now Birmingham Royal Ballet), to plug the gaps left in their male dancer ranks by World War II. De Valois also encouraged him to choreograph, continuing the interest he'd developed in South Africa.

In 1947 Cranko was transferred to Sadler's Wells Ballet (now The Royal Ballet), the resident company at Covent Garden. Here he worked with Leonid Massine, Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann – Massine in particular would be a strong influence on his choreography. But after only three years with the Company Cranko retired as a dancer to accept the position as resident choreographer of Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet.

Soon after he enjoyed a major popular success with Pineapple Poll (1951), an English seaside comedy with music by Arthur Sullivan arranged by Charles Mackerras. Here Merle Park dances the ebullient title role, in choreography that displays Cranko's inspired incorporation of English traditional dances:

Cranko was now well into his stride. The next few years saw a range of major works across a range of genres – a diversity of taste and inspiration that was to become a hallmark with Cranko. For Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet he made the whimsical romance The Lady and the Fool (1954); for Paris Opera Ballet he made the Offenbach-inspired La Belle Hélène (1955); and from Sadler's Wells Ballet came his most important commission yet, The Prince of the Pagodas (1957), a new full-length ballet with a newly created score by Benjamin Britten.

In 1958 Cranko was invited to stage a new version of Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet for La Scala Ballet, Milan. Seven years before Kenneth MacMillan created his version, Cranko invested his Romeo and Juliet with a distinctive realism – often taking his lead from Shakespeare, rather than the Russian choreographers whose versions had until then predominated. Cranko restaged the ballet with Stuttgart Ballet in 1962; here Marcia Haydée and Richard Cragun, two Stuttgart dancers who would be key in Cranko’s career, dance the Bedroom pas de deux:

In 1960 Cranko was invited to stage The Prince of the Pagodas in Stuttgart – and by January 1961 he had been appointed ballet director of the Württemberg State Theatres, Stuttgart. That Stuttgart Ballet is now one of Europe’s leading dance companies is thanks in large part to Cranko’s directorship. He trained a leading group of dancers (Haydée, Cragun, Ray Barra and Egon Madsen among them), supported visiting choreographers (particularly MacMillan, who created Song of the Earth for Stuttgart), those from within the ranks (including Jiří Kylián and John Neumeier) and established Germany’s first ballet boarding school, choreographing all the while.

Unable to afford many guest choreographers, Cranko was obliged further to develop his versatility as a choreographer. His Stuttgart works encompass a breathtaking array of genres; but clearly closest to his heart were his full-length narrative works – among them Onegin (1965), The Taming of the Shrew (1969) and Carmen (1971). Many of these works have been taken into the repertories of companies around the world.

Cranko died in 1973 aged 45, after complications from a sleeping pill on a flight from Philadelphia to Stuttgart. His sudden death shocked the ballet world; one of the most heartfelt expressions of loss came from MacMillan, who created the exquisite Requiem in memory of Cranko. Today, Cranko's legacy lives on still – through Stuttgart Ballet and the John Cranko Ballet School, through the works of choreographers he supported, and in his own ballets.

The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Simon and Virginia Robertson, David Hancock, Lady Jarvis, Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson, The Artists' Circle and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.

This article has 1 comment

  1. Joanne responded on 25 January 2015 at 10:04pm Reply

    What a great talent Cranko was and I saw his 'Pineapple Poll' danced by the then Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet with Marion Tait - with those amazing designs by Lancaster - it was sheer balletic escapism!
    It is so sad that he is no longer with us - who knows what other masterpieces he would of choreographed...

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