He experienced John Cranko as a dancer in the late 1960s and maintained his legacy for around 20 years as the artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet: Reid Anderson. To this day, he globally stages Cranko's major narrative ballets, imparting the technique and spirit of this great storyteller. In January 2024, he collaborates with the Bayerisches Staatsballett on perhaps Cranko's most famous work, Onegin. In the interview, he shares his experiences with John Cranko, a fateful Christmas celebration, and why Cranko choreographies are a "life-changer."
Anette Baumann (AB): You worked with John Cranko yourself, and in the 1960s, as a Canadian, you unexpectedly ended up in Stuttgart. How did that happen?
Reid Anderson (RA): I owe all of that to a Christmas celebration in London. I trained at the Royal Ballet School in London but was not accepted into the Royal Ballet. The following year, I returned to work with the opera ballet during the Christmas season – although I would have much preferred to dance in a real ballet company. I was then invited to the school's Christmas party. Initially, I didn't want to go but was persuaded. At the party, I met Barbara Fewster, the Grande Dame of the Royal Ballet School at the time. I had challenged her to dance as a kind of dare. She told me about John Cranko and that he was currently looking for men for his Stuttgart company. I knew Cranko; I had seen his Romeo. But I had no idea where Stuttgart was. I actually asked my parents for money for the flight and flew in January for the audition. And I got accepted.
AB: What kind of person was Cranko? How do you remember him?
RA: I can tell you about my first encounter with him: I arrived at the Stuttgart Theater on January 4, 1969, and was standing somewhat lost at the stage entrance. I didn‘t speak a word of German either. Then, by chance, Cranko's assistant Anne Williams came by. She simply said, "Come, I'll take you to the cafeteria. The audition is only tomorrow." We went to the cafeteria, and I was introduced to everyone: "This is Dieter Graf, who, by the way, is my husband today. This is Ann... And this is John." At first, I thought it couldn't be John Cranko. Imagine if I had walked into the Royal Ballet and Sir Frederick Asthon had been introduced to me as Fred. Unthinkable! John was like an ordinary person. He talked to me normally; he liked Canada. He didn't have an office but always sat in the cafeteria, smoking. And he constantly solved crossword puzzles when he wasn't rehearsing. He was a very approachable, open person. The next day, I auditioned and was immediately asked if I could start as soon as possible if needed. Indeed, a week later, I received a telegram: "Can you come? Stop. We're going on tour to America. Stop. Need you urgently. Stop." A month later, I was in Stuttgart.
AB: Currently, you are rehearsing "Onegin" with the Munich ensemble. You have danced the piece yourself, knowing it inside out. What does Onegin mean to you?
RA: My first ballet in Stuttgart was Romeo and Juliet. Right after that, Onegin was being performed. I didn't know the piece and initially thought, "What kind of ballet is 'One Gin'? If it were a series, would the second part be 'Two Gins'?" I had never read Pushkin. In Canada, Shakespeare was part of the school curriculum. Anyway, I saw my name on the cast list. However, I couldn't find myself in the group. So, I went to John in the cafeteria and asked him. He just said, "You have to look higher up." And there I saw that, as a 19-year-old newcomer, I was cast as Gremin! The pas de deux between Tatjana and Gremin is one of the most beautiful and challenging that Cranko created. It expresses pure, loving respect between two people! My "aha" moment was realizing that I understood everything, the whole story, without knowing it. I couldn't believe that there was something so beautiful that you could understand without knowing what it was about. That's what sets Cranko apart.
AB: Does that refer to the "ballet miracle" spoken of in connection with Stuttgart? What was special about Cranko's ballets at that time?
RA: At that time, ballet was quite artificial, think of Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake. And then, in contrast, you see the second act of Onegin. The dancers walk on the stage. They walk like normal people. They cry like normal people. They react to each other. What matters with Cranko is the reaction, not the action. The way Lenski throws the glove, challenges Onegin to a duel. I had never seen anything like that before; I was literally blown away. The audience was electrified.
I THINK THAT'S THE GIFT JOHN GAVE TO THE WORLD: IT'S ABOUT REAL EXPERIENCE, ABOUT AUTHENTICITY.
John always said: Many can execute the steps, but only a few can truly dance. It's not about who, when, and with whom. It's about the why. That's a completely different way of looking at this art form than was customary until then. The dancers moved on stage in a very natural, realistic way. It wasn't artificial anymore; it was real. I'm trying to convey that in Munich now. The dancers must be human on stage, react to each other, portray.
AB: This leads me to another question. In recent years, there have been choreographers who said, "The technique today is incredible, the dancers are incredible. But there's a lack of artistry." Do you agree?
RA: I would say there's some truth to that statement. In a company, you definitely need a personality, a director, or a choreographer who knows how to bring out the artistic potential in the dancers. I think it also has to do a bit with all the competitions, especially where young dancers from the USA participate, but also many from Europe. They then think the higher I jump, the more I turn, the better. But that's exactly what John said:
IT'S NOT ABOUT EXECUTING THE STEPS. IT'S ABOUT HOW YOU EXECUTE THEM.
How you give meaning to the movements when they are supposed to mean something. This works with modern narrative ballets like those of Christopher Wheeldon. But it also works with a Swan Lake if you want it to. Companies like the Bayerische Staatsballett can do that. The ensemble is very well-trained, very professional, equal with Paris, London, or the American Ballet Theatre. Truly good companies know how to handle all these demands. But then there are, of course, also young dancers who come from a fantastic school, dance fantastically, but they have never been confronted with what makes this art form in its essence.
AB: Do you think that today and in the future, another ballet miracle can be created?
RA: Yes, I think so. John Neumeier has created such a ballet wonder. Or Balanchine back in the day; he also created a style that is distinctive. I think a new ballet wonder is possible, but it needs someone with a vision, and it has to be something completely new. You're not just trying to show the audience what it wants to see; you also want to educate it. As a choreographer, you have to manage to break free from models and find your own voice. Of course, you are influenced by other styles, by what you know. Some things rub off on you. Jiří Kylián, William Forsythe, Uwe Scholz were such people.
SO, I DO THINK THAT A NEW BALLET WONDER IS POSSIBLE EVEN TODAY.
AB: Let's get back to John Cranko. What is special about his style? You have already mentioned the pas de deux.
RA: The pas de deux, especially the lifts, are indeed special. They are very complicated, often happening above the partner's head. John always had only a rough structure in his mind when he came into the studio. He knew the music inside out; he listened to it every night, usually between two and six in the morning. The rest just came out of him. It was like magic. Together with the dancers, he would then experiment for hours until it worked. Because he himself didn't exactly know how the movements should work, everyone was ultimately part of the process. We collectively figured out how to get from A to B. This led to special and unique movement sequences. Today, dancers often come well-prepared to the studio. Everything is available on video, on the internet. But having seen something and being able to execute it yourself are two very different things. You have to explain a lot: where and how exactly do you have to hold the partner, how do you turn her, etc. It becomes very mechanical.
AB: Do you personally have a favorite passage or favorite moment in this ballet?
RA: That would be the last act, the final pas de deux of Tatjana and Onegin. You can get lost in it. Not completely, as this part is technically too demanding. If you completely let go, it becomes dangerous. The pas de deux starts calmly, but then it gradually becomes more and more demanding. Technically and emotionally. I would say, technically, it's the most challenging pas de deux in this piece. The toughest. You are finished. Also, emotionally. If you've performed it correctly, you are literally at the end.
AB: What impact does such an experience have on a dancer? Does it also change you as a person?
RA: Dancing this pas de deux, dancing Cranko, is life-changing.
CRANKO IS A
This experience changes your life forever.
AB: What do you think, will Cranko still be danced in 50 years?
RA: I believe so. I'm not entirely sure because 50 years is a long time. But on the other hand, we have been performing his works for 50 years already. We just commemorated his 50th anniversary in 2023. It still feels like yesterday; I can't believe that we've been keeping his works alive for 50 years now. To this day, John Cranko is one of the most performed choreographers of narrative ballets. And we continue to pass on his works from generation to generation. First, it was Glenn Tetley, then Marcia Haydée, then me. Now, Tamas Detrich takes care of Cranko's legacy. Looking back, I find it almost frightening how my life has developed. I've always been able to do what I wanted to do. It never felt like work to me. I would say I was damn lucky.
Mr. Anderson, thank you for this conversation.
The interview was conducted by Annette Baumann.