The ballets of John Cranko

By Sheri Candler

While Robert Joffrey believed in reviving forgotten 20th century masterworks and introducing the world to up and coming talent, he also loved to present the works of current masters, often Europeans. One such master was South African choreographer John Cranko who worked primarily with Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later renamed The Royal Ballet) and the Stuttgart Ballet where he became artistic director. Cranko trained in Cape Town, but moved with his father to London at a young age. His first works as a choreographer were created on the dancers of Sadler’s Wells.

Until the 1970s, Cranko’s work was largely performed outside of the US, but Robert Joffrey added one of Cranko’s earliest works, Pineapple Poll, to the company’s 1970 season thus introducing this work to the American audience. The score of Pineapple Poll came from the music of Arthur Sullivan, relying on the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire. Sullivan’s copyright on the music had run out in 1950, prompting arranger Sir Charles Mackerras to come up with a way to rearrange it into ballet work for Sadler’s Wells. Together with Cranko, they refashioned the “The Bumboat Woman’s Story” from the Gilbert and Sullivan opera H.M.S. Pinafore into a new, comedic ballet.

Further Cranko pieces such as Jeu de Cartes and Opus I were included in the 1975 season. Jeu de Cartes features a score by Stravinsky parodying fellow composers Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Ravel and the ballet is about a poker game with dueling packs of cards and a Joker who disrupts the proceedings.

Further short works by Cranko were presented in the 1977 and 1978 seasons, Pas de Deux Holberg and Brouillards respectively. Brouillards world premiered in 1970 with the Stuttgart Ballet and is based upon nine of composer Claude Debussy’s piano preludes. The title of the piece means ‘mists’ with the dancers appearing and disappearing from the stage leaving behind nothing but memories. Here is a short piece found online featuring dancers from the Stuttgart Ballet

Moving into the 1980s, the Joffrey Ballet was ready to handle some of Cranko’s full length works.  In 1981, the company mounted their production of Taming of the Shrew. World premiered in 1969 with the Stuttgart Ballet, the piece is based on Shakespeare’s story of the breaking of an ill tempered woman by her male suitor; a story of how good nature and virtuous love heals the soul more than hot tempers. It was universally well received and firmly announced that the new dancers in the company we well suited to define the work of the Joffrey throughout the 1980s.

In 1984, Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet received its first American debut with the Joffrey. Another ballet set to a Shakespeare play with music by Prokofiev, the Joffrey premiered it at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC with Patricia Miller as Juliet and James Canfield as Romeo. A large and colorful production featuring a 2 tiered set, the company’s performance was said to breathe life into Shakespeare’s well worn play due the young age of the cast who danced with youthful exuberance rather than tight technique.

cast of the Joffrey's production of Romeo and Juliet

Tragically, Cranko died at 46 in 1973 from an allergic reaction to a sleeping pill he took while on a transatlantic flight. His work now lives on in the repertoire of the UK’s Birmingham Royal Ballet and is regularly performed by companies all over the world.

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