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Cranko, John Cyrillocked

(1927–1973)

John Cyril Cranko (1927–1973)

by Sir Cecil Beaton, 1956

© Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Cranko, John Cyril (1927–1973), ballet dancer and choreographer, was born on 15 August 1927 in Rustenburg, about 60 miles from Johannesburg, South Africa, the only child of Herbert Cranko, a lawyer who later went on to practise in Johannesburg itself, and his wife, (Hilda) Grace, daughter of Thomas Hinds, farmer at Magaliesberg, Transvaal, of English ancestry. She had a daughter from a previous marriage. The father's family were of Dutch ancestry, their name originally having been Krankoor. John Cranko spent his childhood in Johannesburg. After attending the co-educational Highlands North state high school and studying ballet privately with Marjorie Sturman, at the age of seventeen he joined the University of Cape Town Ballet School in 1944 and went to London to attend the Sadler's Wells Ballet School in 1946. Largely for ideological reasons, he never worked in South Africa again.

In 1947 Cranko danced with the Sadler's Wells Ballet and was encouraged to choreograph by Ninette de Valois. In 1951 he achieved popular success with Pineapple Poll, a cheerful retelling of a Sir W. S. Gilbert absurdity with more than a hint of HMS Pinafore, to a medley of tunes by Sir Arthur Sullivan, and this willingness to refashion material well within his audience's theatregoing experience became a characteristic of his later work. Whereas the Diaghilev company seemed almost embarrassed at the success of their potboiling Boutique fantasque (1919), that kind of success was far more representative of Cranko's achievements. It was a crucial difference. His Beauty and the Beast (1949) remade in dance Jean Cocteau's more successful film. His Harlequin in April (1951), and the well-known Lady and the Fool (1954), both used commedia dell'arte themes. In 1957 with Prince of the Pagodas (which had a specially commissioned score by Benjamin Britten) and in 1961 with Antigone he attempted a level of creativity he could not sustain. His intimate revue Cranks in 1955 had been very successful, enlarging the dance content of this popular but overworked genre, but his attempt to repeat the formula in 1960 with New Cranks was unsuccessful, as was his involvement in a musical, Keep your Hair on (1958).

A scandal in his private life (a prosecution for homosexuality) as well as these artistic set-backs led him to change direction and become director of the Opera Ballet in Stuttgart in 1961, where Nicholas Beriosoff as previous director had already begun to raise standards. Cranko made the company a popular success, the focus for a general renaissance of ballet in Germany, and choreographed a series of works for it, achieving an increasing reputation until his tragically early death in 1973.

His artistic set-backs from 1957 to 1960 were a watershed in his career. The Stuttgart Ballet audience had little experience of ballet, particularly of British ballet, and in the pressure for new works, itself a symptom of an unsophisticated public, Cranko inclined to opt for what was artistically the easy way out: to borrow other people's ideas and achievements, which a more knowledgeable audience might have been less willing to accept. His Neapolitan dance in his Swan Lake (1963), for example, came as close to being a crib of the Neapolitan of Sir Frederick Ashton as possible without being a straight copy, and these borrowings were too often apparent in Cranko's work. He tended also not to worry about an occasional clumsiness in the pressure to complete work and get it on stage, rather than revise and refine, particularly as he increasingly became aware that his Stuttgart audiences were easily pleased. He was most acclaimed for his ‘story’ ballets, making much use of effects from legitimate theatre, showing a shrewd sense of what worked in theatrical terms, and using broad effects with skill. In Swan Lake his prince was finally engulfed in a watery grave, appearing and disappearing in the waves in fine Romantic style, and his Romeo and Juliet (1962) showed a sensitive understanding of how to arrange dance transitions from scene to scene. His best works for Stuttgart depended on other people's achievements: Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Onegin (1965), Taming of the Shrew (1969), and Carmen (1971).

Stuttgart, as an industrial centre, lacked the activity in all the arts which stretched Cranko's capacity and imagination in London, and his Stuttgart company tended to exist as an artistic enclave. This made for a family atmosphere and Cranko, who was extrovert and emotionally insecure, came to depend very much on his dancers as a substitute family. He increasingly relied on his principals and his ballet Initials RBME (1972) was created for and by them—Richard Cragun, Birgit Keil, Marcia Haydée, and Egon Madsen. The long-term effects of this gifted quartet dancing most of the leading roles may not have been altogether healthy for the company's development as a whole. Cranko, impulsive and idealistic, had great charm, and in his curtain speeches achieved an impressive personal relationship with his German audience.

The Stuttgart ballet company's achievements were based on a long-term and sensible plan worked out by Cranko. He encouraged choreographers, including John Neumeier and Jiri Kylián, to develop within the company, and also encouraged Kenneth MacMillan to work there as well. MacMillan's major work The Song of the Earth (1965), originally turned down at Covent Garden, was performed by the Stuttgart company. Cranko also developed a ballet school to serve the company. His company and his narrative ballets won considerable praise and popular success, at the Edinburgh Festival in 1963, in South America in 1967, in New York at the Lincoln Center, on tour in America in 1969 and 1973, and at Covent Garden just after his death.

While returning to Stuttgart by plane from Philadelphia with his company after a successful tour, on 26 June 1973 Cranko succumbed to a vomiting fit brought on by a sleeping drug, and choked to death. He was unmarried.

Sources

  • H. Kögler and others, John Cranko und das Stuttgarter Ballett (1969)
  • J. Percival, Theatre in my blood (1983)
  • personal knowledge (1986)
  • D. Craine and J. Mackrell, eds., The Oxford dictionary of dance (2000)
  • The Times (27 June 1973)

Likenesses

  • C. Beaton, photograph, 1956, NPG [see illus.]
  • photographs, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at Death

£37,554: probate, 17 Dec 1973, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]