Dance: A creator of wit and brilliance

His genius was for long dramatic ballets, and his masterpiece is Onegin - which the Royal Ballet performs for the first time next week. John Percival recounts the brief, precocious life of John Cranko
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The Independent Culture

Early in 1946, as soon as he could get a ship from South Africa after the Second World War, a teenage boy arrived in London, his ambition to make his name in ballet. Nobody could have guessed that, in little more than five years, he would become almost the most successful dance-maker in Britain, second only to Frederick Ashton. At 18, John Cranko hadn't much going for him as a dancer. Skinny, with a big conk, but a lovely, lively grin, he was no great shakes to look at. On top of this, he had only limited dance training, although enough, on getting into the Sadler's Wells Ballet School, to "find myself not too bad and rated as senior", as he wrote to his best friend.

The Sadler's Wells Ballet was newly installed at Covent Garden with The Sleeping Beauty and needed extra dancers, so within weeks he was going on in the corps de ballet. A second company of mainly young dancers had started working at Sadler's Wells and by summer his strength as a partner won him a full contract there. But dancing wasn't his aim. Choreography was what he always wanted to do, and, starting at 17, he had already produced three ballets while studying in Cape Town. They can't have been too bad either, because, although he never revived them, he recycled themes, ideas and movement from all three into later works.

Ninette de Valois was directing both the Sadler's Wells companies, and he told her about his ambitions. She was sympathetic and said to Peggy van Praagh, ballet mistress of the younger company, "I think he'll make a choreographer". But she told Cranko that he must first learn his craft by dancing in other people's ballets; and, anyway, she was already busy trying out other aspirants. So Cranko had to be content with whatever little chances came along. These amounted only to opera-ballets, a number for a charity ball, and a workshop piece for the Royal Academy of Dancing: all competent enough, but not greatly exciting.

Curiously enough, given that he was to become world famous for long dramatic ballets, Cranko's breakthrough came in 1947 with a little dance for three characters.His arrangement of Tritsch-Tratsch, a Johann Strauss polka, showed two sailors competing to attract a girl who left them both deflated. In only three minutes, it told everything you could want to know about them, and did so with tremendous gaiety, wit and brilliance.

Now things began to move for him: three productions for Sadler's Wells, dances for a West End revue, commissions for other companies (even New York City Ballet!), and to crown it all, aged just 23, his appointment as resident choreographer to Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet for the 1950-51 season. Luckily, the three varied creations he made that year were all successful, and one of them, Pineapple Poll, has been given widely ever since.

The idea of staging a Gilbert and Sullivan ballet came from the conductor Sir Charles Mackerras (then a modest répétiteur with Sadler's Wells Opera). It excelled beyond his and Cranko's wildest hopes. Story and style bore some resemblance to Tritsch-Tratsch, but the production was a more extravagant affair, and an even more clamorous success, not just with balletomanes but with a wider public, too.

Over the next decade Cranko's career looked enviable, with frequent commissions from both Sadler's Wells (or, as they became, Royal Ballet) companies, including the first three-act British ballet with a specially written score – The Prince of the Pagodas, by Britten, no less. He wrote and directed a long-running hit revue, Cranks, made works for Ballet Rambert and other companies including the Paris Opera and La Scala, Milan. But he was eager for even more, and his private life had its disasters, so in 1960, when invited to direct the Stuttgart Ballet, he accepted like a shot.

Nothing could have been better timed. What The New York Times dubbed "Stuttgart's ballet miracle" was achieved with blazing speed – the transformation of a reputable but modest regional company into one of the world's most famous international troupes. Partly, this was through the flair he found for choosing and developing dancers. The first and supreme example of this was Marcia Haydée.

Haydée auditioned for the corps de ballet. Cranko was impressed and, spotting that she had a far bigger potential, Cranko instructed her to learn the last big pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. Two days later she danced it on stage and he had to spend 90 minutes persuading the theatre's director that this unknown, inexperienced 22-year-old must be their new ballerina; he succeeded only by threat- ening to resign. He then had to instill the confidence she initially lacked by giving her all the roles "when I wasn't quite ready for them". She saw that "if this man is doing everything for me, it's because I must have something". Thus was born a supreme dramatic ballerina.

Haydée and her colleagues grew up in the ballets he made for them, covering an extremely wide variety of styles, but the greatest of his creations must be Onegin, which is being mounted for the Royal Ballet next week. Its Stuttgart premiere was in 1965, but the subject was in Cranko's mind long before; ever since Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin was one of the operas he made dances for in his novice period. He liked the story as being, he said, "simultaneously a myth and a situation that is emotionally valid. You have a blasé man of the world who can't feel any more, who misses the point of the ugly duckling. When she turns into a swan he wants her back, and she realises how empty and bored he really is."

Though Cranko read the original novel-in-verse by Russia's greatest poet Pushkin, the structure of his ballet is closer to the opera, because it had shown him the possibilities of large dance ensembles in each act, in contrasted styles: first peasant dancing, then the comical middle class at Tatiana's birthday, and, finally, an aristocratic ball. Among these is woven what he described as "a very elaborate pas de quatre for the plot", comprising not only the two principals but Tatiana's sister Olga and her fiancé Lensky who introduces Onegin to the others.

Cranko first thought the roles would be ideal for Fonteyn and Nureyev. He was probably right, but Covent Garden turned it down because he suggested using music from the opera. Stuttgart's theatre director raised the same objection so Cranko got the composer Kurt-Heinz Stolze, who had already written a short ballet for him, to arrange a three-act score from less familiar Tchaikovsky music, mainly piano pieces. Stolze carried it off well, providing valuable leitmotifs and combining short musical numbers, suitable for dancing, into longer sequences to carry the drama.

Unlike most choreographers, who leave a ballet alone once it is completed, Cranko was a great one for revising his works, always for the better. Onegin was no exception, and when it was chosen to open the Stuttgart Ballet's first New York season he not only developed his choreography for greater logic and display, but got his designer Jurgen Rose to make the settings bigger and grander. The dress rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera House proved disastrous. But that night the audience watched the quiet opening attentively, were drawn in as the drama developed, and the performance ended with a roar of cheers.

Is that what the Royal Ballet will find also? If not, they have no excuse, since the work has been acclaimed in performances worldwide by many companies. Cranko himself did not live to see its full success; he died at 45 from the unusual side effect of a mild prescription, but in that too-short life he already achieved more in giving enjoyment to audiences than others do in far longer careers.

Onegin. 22 Nov to 29 Jan. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2 (020-7304 4000;