With its staging of Onegin the Royal Ballet brought into its repertory, albeit belatedly, the work of John Cranko. This Linbury event, timed to coincide with more performances of Onegin, combined a master class format (Jane Bourne rehearsing Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg accompanied by Philip Gammon) and a panel discussion between Brenda Last, Ronald Hynd and Sir Peter Wright led by Phyllida Ritter. The latter was supported by video footage including excerpts from the 1960s black and white television production of Onegin featuring Marcia Haydee, Cranko’s muse, as Tatiana, and a young Lynn Seymour as Olga. (There were cries of delight from the panellists when they recognised themselves in video footage and archive still photographs.) Margaret Dale and Pamela May also contributed from the audience.
John Cranko, it was observed, would have probably protested at the evening’s title. He was a man who did not want his audience to have to “look” for anything. His belief was that everything he was trying to say should be apparent from movement. A romantic man whose life was often touched by ecstasy and shadowed by sadness (including being unable to persuade the Royal Ballet to allow him to create work for them including Onegin), Cranko was a man both of energy and intensity. Starting in 1944 he choreographed almost 100 ballets before his death at the early age of 45.
The discussion did not concentrate on what to “look for” in his ballets, but rather focused on giving an impression of the man. Here was someone who wanted to communicate, and he designed every step and lift with that primary aim, beauty of line being of secondary concern. The panel remembered a person of immense vitality and enthusiasm who demanded 100% from his dancers. The essence of the man translated itself best into the creation of dramatic ballets. He did produce abstract ballets, but, on the whole, while these were musically very clever, they were not really representative. That was not so true when he was tempted to break the rules. Then, like Balanchine whose work influenced him strongly, he shone.
A grainy excerpt from his 1954 ballet The Lady and the Fool (danced by Svetlana Beriosova) was also shown. It was observed that this ballet almost verged on the over sentimental, a characteristic to which Cranko was sometime prone. Another trait was his habit of recycling material from one ballet to another.
Other ballets mentioned included one of his great successes, Pineapple Poll (1951), (a role that Brenda Last danced 87 times!) and The Prince of the Pagodas (1957). Mention of the last provoked the remark that Cranko was unsparing in what he asked his dancers to do. No doubt this is true of his 1959 ballet Antigone. Peter Wright described this work as producing images that were both terrifying and dramatic. It was sincerely hoped that it might be revived.
In 1958 Cranko created his Romeo and Juliet. Like MacMillan, he used Prokofiev’s score, but he concentrated his efforts on exploring the relationship between the two central characters exposing their emotional depths. In contrast MacMillan (who Ashton chose instead of Cranko to create his ballet of the same name) produced more of an expressive piece.
The rehearsal section of the evening concentrated on the mirror scene (Act 1 scene 2) and the party scene later on in that Act. In interpreting the former, Jane Bourne counselled Alina and Johan to put a bit more schmaltz in it. Here is the moment, she said, when a young girl imagines a man telling her he loves her for the first time. Later during the discussion of this scene, Peter Wright remarked that the dancing must express the girl’s awakening sexuality, and must be erotic, passionate and contain an element of fear.
Many have noted that it is a mystery why it has taken so long for Cranko’s work to enter into the Royal Ballet’s repertory. That observation was underscored by Jane Bourne who noted that this piece very much suited the Royal Ballet, a company which consisted of dancers from the core upwards with strong dramatic qualities. Towards the end of the evening Margaret Dale read from an interview that she had done with Cranko. In it he said, (and I paraphrase), “I try to make images that speak for themselves and are related to life”. Judging by audience reaction to Onegin, he certainly succeeded.