John Cranko: in Memoriam

Fifty years ago, in June, the news that the choreographer, John Cranko, had died on a plane came as a shock to the world of dance. Cranko, 46 years old and at the height of his career, was returning from his fourth successful guest visit to New York with his company, Stuttgart Ballett. On their first visit in 1969 they had been hailed as the “Stuttgart Ballet Miracle.”

John Cranko (right)
with Marcia Haydée and Richard Cragun in a rehearsal for The Taming of the Shrew
February 22, 1969
Photo Hannes Kilian / Stuttgart Ballet

To commemorate the event, Stuttgart Ballett released John Cranko: Tanzvisionär on October 16, a book containing 19 interviews with people, primarily dancers, who worked with or was close to Cranko. Each in their own way describes him as a person, and his creative process and unconventional way of working, often adding personal anecdotes. But echoing through all are statements such as, “He changed my life.” “He saw something in me, which others and I myself did not see, and he managed to bring it out.” “The company was family.”

Those who were accepted into the company became part of that family. Cranko called his dancers ‘the kids’. He was always available, he did not have an office, but sat in the theatre’s canteen. He was generous and not afraid of competition. John Neumeier, Jiří Kylián and William Forsythe created their first pieces in Stuttgart. This unique familial atmosphere was what kept the company together, when Cranko died. Almost everybody stayed. Cranko set up a structure, which lives on today.

But Cranko not only brought German ballet to international acclaim, he was also pivotal in changing its status. When he took up his position as ballet director in 1961, most German ballet companies, like Stuttgart Ballet, were part of an opera house, but it was considered a mere appendix to the real art form: the opera. During Cranko’s first seasons the ballet only performed three to four times a month, and he was contractual obliged to choreograph for the opera performances, with his dancers obliged to perform in them.

John Cranko
with Marcia Haydée and Bernd Berg, 1962
Photo Hannes Kilian / Stuttgart Ballet

The ballet did not have its own budget. Financially, it was subjected to the opera. Neither did it have its own workshops for costumes and sets. Cranko did have a private secretary, though, Dieter Graefe, who in 1966 became Germany’s first ballet secretary, taking care of all the administrative tasks. Cranko was also keen on establishing a school integrating academic and ballet lessons. He managed to do it with his assistant director Anne Wooliams. It was the first of its kind in Germany. It was Cranko’s huge success, which made all these changes possible.

The coffee-table-sized John Cranko: Tanzvisionär book also includes Cranko’s biography, a list of all his choreographies and innumerable wonderful photos from his life. The stage designer, Jürgen Rose, who made his first ballet sets for Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet in 1962 when just 25 years old, concludes his interview with the statement, “[Nobody] has remained so alive in my memory as Cranko: He is here!” And that is how you feel when you read this wonderful book.

In December last year, another book was published commemorating John Cranko, Ashley Killar’s, Cranko: the Man and his Choreography, now re-released in a revised version. Killar began his career as a dancer with Cranko in Stuttgart where he performed from 1962 to 1967. He then went on to work as ballet master and artistic director of various other companies.

Killar’s book on Cranko is thoroughly researched. It begins before the choreographer’s birth, briefly recounting his parents’ story before continuing with that of Cranko’s life, from his early childhood in South Africa, where he was born, to his time in London, and his successful years in Stuttgart. But it is more than just a biography. It puts Cranko into his social and historical context. Killar shows us South Africa during the first half of the last century with its apartheid regime. He tells us about the poverty of post-war London, a time when being homosexual was a criminal act, and the German Wirtsschaftswunder-years in the 1960’s with a recently divided country in a Western and an Eastern part.  

John Cranko in 1967
Photo Hannes Kilian / Stuttgart Ballet

Killar also recounts in detail the creation of each ballet and its reception. He digs briefly into the biographies of some of the people who influenced or worked closely with Cranko. The composer Benjamin Brittan, who wrote the music for the choreographer’s The Prince of the Pagodas; the artist John Piper, who created some sets for him, and his wife Myfanwy, who worked with him on some of his librettos during his time in London; and in Germany, Walter Eric Schaefer, the director of the theatre, who made Cranko’s success possible. Just to mention a few.

The book is a good and very interesting read and brings many details about Cranko and the people around him. Although Killar gets very close to his subject, he never insists on presenting the ultimate truth. If he cannot prove a statement by Cranko with a quote from a letter or an interview, he says, Cranko might have thought, been inspired, or similar, which is very respectful.

Cranko: the Man and his Choreography includes a catalogue of Cranko’s works, a selection of his letters, a selection of synopses and program notes and a chapter on Stuttgart ballet and school after his passing.

The two books complement each other well and draw a vivid picture of Cranko and his time.

Stuttgart Ballett will officially launch John Cranko Tanzvisionär at the Stuttgart Opera House on Sunday, October 22 followed by a performance of his Romeo and Juliet.

John Cranko: Tanzvisionär
Editor: Stuttgart Ballet
Published: October 16, 2023
Publisher: Henschel Verlag
Hardcover, 288 pages, ‘coffee table’-size (24.5 x 40 cm)
In German
ISBN: 978-3894878429
Cover price: €49

Cranko: the Man and his Choreography
Author: Ashley Killar
Published: July 28, 2023 (2nd edition)
Publisher: Matador
Paperback, 512 pages
In English
ISBN: 978-1805141716
Cover price: £24.95