John Cranko School
March 04, 2023
by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2023 by Ilona Landgraf
It is no secret that Germany has been heading towards multiple calamities for some time. This has inevitably left its mark on theaters in many ways – and I’ve come to expect less-than-excellence when watching German performances of ballet. The performance by Stuttgart’s John Cranko School as guests in nearby Ludwigsburg, however, made me sigh with relief. Within minutes, it became clear that Tadeusz Matacz, the school’s longtime director, has kept the standard high. He chose to present a tasteful, primarily classical program devoid of the insipid vulgarity that I’ve encountered elsewhere. By sidelining the trends of today, Matacz takes an approach that some might discount as reactionary and outdated – but the results speak otherwise. His students seemed fabulously comfortable onstage – focused, technically strong, and convincing as actors. The sold-out auditorium cheered them on enthusiastically.
Matacz set the bar high right away, opening the program with an excerpt from the second act of “The Nutcracker” (Petipa, Ivanov, and Vainonen’s choreography) led by Thalina Chapin as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Joshua Nunamaker as her cavalier. The pair proved that they’re ready to join a company, and in the pas de trois, the spacious leaps and radiant charm of thirteen-year-old Waku Tohara caught my eye.
“The Nutcracker” returned in the second half of the program with a pas de huit from Cranko’s version. The beauty, grace, and wit on display nodded to an homage to Balanchine.
Tchaikovsky was the evening’s most popular composer. In addition to “Nutcracker”, he also accompanied the pas de deux between Odile (Abigail Willson-Heisel) and Prince Siegfried (Mitchell Millhollin) from Petipa’s “Swan Lake”. Unperturbed by the technical demands of the piece, the long-limbed Willson-Heisel sailed through the choreography like a pro. I was spellbound by the emotional heights and depths that she reached as Odile. A fascinating young ballerina!
The John Cranko School’s founder (and name giver) was represented in two other pieces. The funny “Salade” (1968) featured the snappy Maceo Gerard teasing three perky Muses (Annaelle M’Dallal, Noa Shoda, and Clara Thiele) – in what was perhaps a satirical nod to Balanchine’s “Apollo”? There was also an excerpt of “Jeu de Cartes” (1965) that gave five cocky Jacks of Hearts (Nicholas Isabelli, Leonardo D’Onofrio, James Platts, David Horton-Sibble, and Sergii Zharikov) a chance to kick Jacob Alvarado’s Joker out of the game.
“Drifting Bones”, created last summer for the 50-year anniversary gala of the Cranko School, is a modern choreography by Alessandro Giaquinto, a demi-soloist from the Stuttgart Ballet. Though I failed to figure out how to connect the plot-less scenes to the piece’s title, I was impressed by Giaquinto’s ingenuity and by the thickness of the atmosphere he has created. Accompanied by serene piano music from Johann Sebastian Bach, eight dancers (five men and three women) absorb themselves in the task of doing whatever they want. Their soft, harmonious-but-fresh movements seem driven by a vital urgency. As the warm sunset cools, the space available for movement narrows. Suddenly, the dancers seem pressured and restricted, though some hop like children and one counters the constrictions defiantly. Who is the woman that rolls onstage like an insect caught in a glaring spotlight? She is made more mysterious by the loud crackling of an old tape. The instant the spotlight is switched off, things become less spooky – but Norma Winstone’s jazz still signals the risk of drama. Melancholy spreads, but the dancers seem to have matured, struggling forward as if withstanding the tides. Every so often, one takes a hit. Shortly before darkness sets in, a man retreats from a woman, frantically wiping at his pants as if attempting to get rid of the past.
The second new work was also created by a member of the Stuttgart Ballet – Emanuele Babici, currently an apprentice of the company. His “La Nascita di Venere” (“The Birth of Venus”), set to music by Edvard Grieg, premiered last December at Aktion Weihnachten – a Christmas dance event by the Stuttgart Ballet and the Cranko School. Babici condensed the Greek myth into three scenes. First, Merkur (Maceo Gerard) announces the birth of Venus (Alice McArthur). (A glance at the program helps to understand the background story.) The characters include Venus’s father, the emasculated Uranus (Mitchell Millhollin), her mother Tellus (Ji-Young Kang), her vengeful brother Saturn (Leon Metelsky), the Three Graces (Clara Thiele, Kaela Tapper, and Ayako Tsukada), Zephyr (Leonardo D’Onofrio), Flora (Abigail Willson-Heisel), and the Horae. We’re at the Mount Olympus and – as is fitting for gods – grace and refined manners reign. As I watched Babici’s purely classical choreography, which marks his debut as a choreographer, I thought that he reached high. Well done!
|Links:||Website of the John Cranko School|
|Website of the Forum Ludwigsburg|
|Photos:||(The photos show a different cast from an earlier production.)
|1.||Students of the John Cranko School, “Jeu de Cartes” by John Cranko, John Cranko School 2023|
|2.||Students of the John Cranko School, “Jeu de Cartes” by John Cranko, John Cranko School 2023|
|3.||Students of the John Cranko School, “The Nutcracker” by John Cranko, John Cranko School 2023|
|4.||Students of the John Cranko School, “The Nutcracker” by John Cranko, John Cranko School 2023|
|5.||Mitchell Millhollin and Ji-Young Kang, “La Nascita di Venere” by Emanuele Babici, John Cranko School 2023
|6.||Students of the Cranko School, “La Nascita di Venere” by Emanuele Babici, John Cranko School 2023|
|all photos © John Cranko School|