Who is John Cranko?

John Cranko (1927–1973) was a celebrated choreographer of the mid-20th century who is credited with making Stuttgart Ballet one of the finest classical troupes in Europe. Born in South Africa, he trained with Cape Town Ballet School and created his first work, The Soldier’s Tale, for Cape Town Ballet Club in 1945. That same year he moved to London and began training at Sadler’s Wells School and soon joined Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, the precursor of The Royal Ballet. Within just four years, Cranko was named the company’s resident choreographer. He was soon in demand internationally, also making works for the New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, and La Scala in Milan.

SF Ballet in Cranko's Onegin. (© Erik Tomasson)

In 1961, Cranko was appointed director of the Stuttgart Ballet. New works for Stuttgart included Romeo and Juliet in 1963, Onegin in 1965, and The Taming of the Shrew in 1969. Cranko had a clear gift for dramatic storytelling. The New York Times noted, “As a choreographer, Mr. Cranko took the risk of reviving the full‐evening story ballet at a time when most audiences favored the plotless one‐act work. It was a gamble he won.”

His works have served as a great influence for choreographers who came after him, including most notably Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Peter Wright. In addition, he encouraged young dancers in his company—including Jiří Kylián and John Neumeier—to try their hand at choreography.

In 1973, Cranko died unexpectedly aboard an airplane coming back from a New York tour. His premature death cut short a brilliant career at its height. 

In 2007 the Stuttgart Ballet celebrated what would have been Cranko’s 80th birthday with the Cranko Festival. Glen Tetley created the ballet Voluntariesin his memory. The John Cranko Society in Stuttgart, founded in 1975, promotes knowledge of ballet and Cranko’s work, supports performances and talented dancers, and every year presents the John Cranko Award.