A Lost Leader

A Lost Leader

There are times when, however hard you try, you just can’t get to where you want to be-even, in some senses, need to be.  A couple of months ago I was held in New York City, hostage to work, when where I really wanted to be was in Stuttgart.  Under artistic director Reid Anderson, Stuttgart Ballet was holding a retrospective festival in honor of John Cranko (1927-73), founder and guardian elf, who should have been celebrating his seventieth birthday.  I’m sure it was a great festival-the Stuttgart company has been remarkably loyal to Cranko’s memory and faithful to Cranko’s worth.  In a short time he build a company up from virtually nothing, but luckily it has been a short time long remembered, and his ballets have been kept fresh in the repertory.  This situation is something unusual anywhere, but it is perhaps particularly unusual in Germany, where even the newness of its classic dance tradition encourages novelty rather than preservation.

However if I couldn’t be in Stuttgart in person, I was very much there in spirit,
remembering the town, the theater, the company, and-above all-remembering Cranko himself.  Shortly before the festival, around the time of what would have been Cranko’s birthday on August 15, John Percival wrote a fascinating piece in The Times of London, considering the possibilities if Cranko rather than Kenneth MacMillan had been invited to take over Britain’s Royal Ballet from Ashton in 1970.  It’s a tempting conjecture, and there was, of course, always the actually quite strong ongoing possibility that, had Cranko not died so unexpectedly and prematurely, he would eventually have become the artistic director of the company for which he maintained strong links and a sometimes wary affection.

As a choreographer Cranko died perilously young for his reputation-at forty-six (he
was actually a few months short of his forty-sixth birthday) many choreographers have their best work ahead of them.  Moreover, Cranko’s unquestionable gift for leadership would doubtless have increased with the authority bestowed by time.  Would he have wanted the Royal Ballet?  A few days before his death I asked him that very question.  At first he hedged his bet very slightly but eventually admitted that-if he felt he had
achieved all he could in Stuttgart-he would, with severe misgivings in the “unlikely event of being asked,” probably accept.  With what result?  Well, I doubt whether the Royal Ballet would be floundering in quite the fashion it is now.  Or at least not the same fashion.

In that fateful 1973, talking to Cranko late into the Manhattan night when he was
flushed with the success of Stuttgart’s second New York City season and full of plans for the future, I recalled two earlier key conversations with him.  The first was in early 1951, when Cranko had come to Oxford to speak to the University Ballet Club which, at that time, John Percival and I happened to be running.  We three walked around Oxford talking and talking, Cranko outlining plan after plan for a career that seemed already documented.  The second not altogether dissimilar conversation was in Stuttgart nine years later. With David Ellis, then associate director of Ballet Rambert, I was on an official German government tour of theaters and opera houses, and of course, we caught up with John, who had then been in charge of Stuttgart Ballet for only a year.

Over the years I talked to Cranko many times in many places-so far as dance was
concerned, our careers had virtually grown up together-and I was always impressed by his command of his chosen medium.  Whether he was drunk, which he often was, or sober (which he noticeably was the last time we met), his ideas on dance were rare, brilliant, and
ambitious.  He knew his limitations-he had not that ability for pure dance invention that he recognized, admired, and even envied in Ashton and Balanchine-but he also knew his strength.  He had, as he once memorably put it to Percival, who used it as the title for his subsequent biography, “theater in my blood.”

Yet from all of our meaningful chatter, it was those three special conversations, each about a decade apart, which eventually defined my memories of John, both as man and artist.  As a man he was that cliché, a bundle of contradictions, a veritable walking oxymoron.  He seemed, for instance, a gregarious loner.  Wildly, extravagantly generous, he could be unexpectedly mean and petty.  When he was not insecure, he was overconfident.  When he was not your warm friend, he could be your petulant enemy.
While he was loyal, he was also an inveterate gossip.

As a choreographer he had a specific concept of ballet as theater, which was
stronger than that of Jerome Robbins, Roland Petit, or his early mentor, Ninette de Valois.  He was irresistibly drawn to the theater, and one of his last projects-talked about in that final conversation-was the offer of a Broadway show, as well as an elaborate Tristan, with a score to be commissioned from Hans Werner Henze, and a full-evening Othello, with music possibly by Andrzej Panufnik.

Of course, it is his special extension of the dramatic ballet in this century which remains his legacy.  It was he who realized the power of borrowing dance themes not simply from literature (apart from his standard Romeo and Juliet and the proposed Othello, he also took The Taming of the Shrew from Shakespeare), but also from ballet’s sister lyric art, opera.  With his Onegin and Carmen, he opened up a new field fruitful for the ever-growing demands of a dance public freshly eager for evening-length ballets.

From his earliest days with Pineapple Poll, adapted from Gilbert & Sullivan, Cranko saw ballet, like opera, as dramma per musica, and in his way, had he lived, he would certainly have exerted a profound influence on ballet companies during the last three decades of the century.  And what would he, given the chance, have done with the Royal Ballet?  That we shall never know.  This year Stuttgart is mourning a lost leader, but probably the loss should be calculated even farther afield.  Cranko always had a talent to amaze.

 Copyright©1997, Dance Magazine.

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