A glimpse into a very bright future: John Cranko School ‘Ballet Matinee’

Opera House, Stuttgart
July 10, 2022

One of the highlights of summer dance in Stuttgart is always the John Cranko School performance at the Opera House. This year proved no different, the dancers demonstrating their huge talent and a glimpse into the future in a programme that reflected well their classical training, and the School and Stuttgart Ballet heritage.

The carefully chosen excerpts and ballets also gave plenty of opportunity for individuals to shine, none more so than New Zealander Alice McArthur and Mitchell Millhollin from Illinois, USA in a pas de deux from Uwe Scholz’s The Creation (Die Schöpfung).

The ballet doesn’t try to retell the creation story but is rather the choreographer’s personal, response to Joseph Haydn’s oratorio as he transformed the music into neoclassical dance. It is a dance of trust and security that calls for power, strength and a lot of grace. It got it in spades. From the dramatic opening when Millhollin carried McArthur on, her arms outstretched, the couple were absolutely at one with the music. The gripping choreography was performed with complete perfection. The dramatic exit in which he carries her off aloft, was quite spine tingling.

Mitchell Millhollin and Alice McArthur and in The Creation by Uwe Scholz
Photo Stuttgart Ballet

In a touching homage, the pas de deux was danced in front of a portrait of the choreographer who was so sadly lost to dance while still young. The ballet world may still see too little of Scholz’s work but it’s fabulous to see it being at last introduced to British audiences this autumn, when Birmingham Royal Ballet will be dancing his Seventh Symphony (Beethoven).

Just as outstanding was Ava Arbuckle from Texas, who gave us the most lyrically delicious Odette in the ‘White pas de deux’ from Act 2 of Swan Lake. She danced with a beautiful sense of melancholy. Fully in character, there was sadness as deep as the dark lake of the modernist backdrop, not only in her face but in her whole body, especially her delicate, soft, plaintive arms. As Siegfried, Millhollin again showed what a fine partner he is, but this was Arbuckle’s pas de deux, and what a fabulous job she made of it.

Ava Arbuckle in the Act 2 pas de deux from Swan Lake
Photo Stuttgart Ballet

Arbuckle later showed her prowess in contemporary dance too, performing the demanding solo, Woman, by Catherine Lawellen and Brian Stevens, to a song by the duo Rhye.

The performance opened with Leonid Lavrovsky’s Classical Symphony, a great piece to show of technique, and the only piece of the programme to feature extensive corps work, notably in the fourth movement. Very good it was too with precision wherever you looked. The three couples all shone. In the first movement, Kaela Tapper and Luca Giovanetti were a perfect match. In the second, Emanuele Babici showed some strong lifts and an exciting manège, while Abigail Willson-Heisel produced some great turns and one very long and unwavering balance on one leg. In the third, the delicate Beatriz Domingues showed a great eyeline and lots of attention to detail, while partner Joshua Nunamaker sparkled in his virtuoso work.

Aoi Sawano, Farrah Hirsch, Ruth Schultz and Maceo Gerard
in Salade by John Cranko
Photo Stuttgart Ballet

There were two pieces by the school’s founder. From 1968, the short but charming Salade, to music by Darius Milhaud, features a man and three women. At first it is all orderly, but Cranko’s humour soon surfaces as playfulness creeps in. It suited the cast of Farrah Hirsch, Aoi Sawano, Ruth Schultz and Maceo Gerard brilliantly, the latter dancing with a nicely Puck-ish sense of humour.

There was more fun in the ‘Second Hand’ of Cranko’s Jeu de Cartes, to Igor Stravinsky’s score. It features five high-spirited male hearts who are constantly interrupted by Jacob Alvarado’s rather annoying joker, who does quite literally get picked up and thrown into the wings at one point, not that it deters him. All the variations were danced with aplomb, with Hiroki Amemiya particularly standing out for his fine, fast and very clean pirouettes.

John Cranko School students in Jeu de Cartes by John Cranko
Photo Stuttgart Ballet

After performances in 1858, August Bournonville’s Abdallah, created three years earlier, disappeared completely until reconstructed by Toni Lander and Bruce Marks for Ballet West 1985. Full of stereotypes and the Orientalism that was then fashionable in the mid-nineteenth century, it would probably not find too much favour as a full-length ballet these days. Putting that aside, in the Act 1 Pas de quatre, Domingues, Sawano, Celine Urquhart and Lincoln Sharp gave one of the best school presentations of the choreographer’s work style that I’ve seen for a long time. The quartet all not only seemed to understand the requirements of the Bournonville style, but could reproduce it. Lightness and quick footwork were shown by all, with lovely ballon and fine batterie throughout.

Lincoln Sharp in the Pas de quatre from Abadullah by August Bournonville
Photo Stuttgart Ballet

Elsewhere in classical vein, and from a little lower down the school, five boys danced an Étude by Leonid Zhdanov to music by Joseph Haydn, while five girls had fun with Valentina Ziruljowa’s Polka Pizzicato to music by Johann Strauss. Both pieces included yet more top-notch batterie.

The only extended contemporary work was Alessandro Giaquinto’s Drifting Bones, first seen at the gala celebrating 50 years of the John Cranko School in December 2021. As it brings music by J.S. Bach up against the voice of British jazz singer and lyricist Norma Winstone, the choreography has a dystopian mood, coming with a lot of dark intensity and floor work. Meaning is somewhat vague, although hands over mouths or faces is a regular motif. The graduating dancers looked as good as they did in their classical work, dancing it with great belief. Beautifully lit, the light glanced off their limbs giving them a beautiful aura. Despite the darkness, it’s not without its moments of humour, not least when one dancer, who continues in a solo after the music pauses, suddenly waves to the audience and walks off.

Light relief came with a couple of excerpts from Demis Volpi’s Carnival of the Animals. After six rather cute chicks from the youngest class had emerged from their eggs, we were treated the magical Aquarium section that features a line of dancers and lots of rippling arms, all in the dazzling colours of tropical fish.

Ukrainian guest students in Gopak by Oksana Panchenko
Photo Stuttgart Ballet

The School is presently host to a group of Ukrainian students, who got their own slot, dancing a Gopak, choreographed by Oksana Panchenko. Backed by a projection of rolling farmland, and with ribbons and flowers in the girls’ hair, it was colourful and vibrant, the dancers wowing the audience with lots of high jumps and extremely fast turns from all.

As always, the performance finished with excerpts from Etüden by School artistic Director Tadeusz Matacz and his wife Barbara. It builds from the youngest until the senior dancers pull out all the stops as they jeté and leap excitedly across the stage. As always, it seemed over far too quickly.

Now fully moved in to its fabulous new building just a stone’s throw from the Opera House, the John Cranko School’s future looks assured. After decades of planning, its founder’s dream has become reality. All of the graduating students have secured contracts. Seven are joining Stuttgart Ballet, four are bound for other German companies, three for Tallinn, with the others headed for Lisbon, Hong Kong, Stockholm, Pilsen and Ostrava.

The closing Étuden from the John Cranko School ‘Ballet Matinee’ 2022
Photo Stuttgart Ballet