Prussian Roulette

Ballet has had a presence in Stuttgart for several centuries, but it was John Cranko who really put the town on the international dance map, serving as a charismatic director and prolific choreographer for the Stuttgart Ballet until his death in 1973 at the age of 45. New York, which greeted the company with a-star-is-born enthusiasm in 1969, hadn’t seen it for nineteen years until this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival, where it was presented in tandem with the Hamburg Ballet, as if to provide a perspective on the state of classical dance in Germany today.

The two programs offered by the Stuttgart, however – both devoted to narrative three-acters by Cranko – hardly represented this company’s range, which encompasses a variety of European-oriented approaches to classicism by Kenneth MacMillan, John Neumeier, Jirí Kylián, Maurice Béjart, Hans van Manen, and William Forsythe, to name just the practitioners Americans know best. I suspect that Cranko’s 1962 Romeo and Juliet and his 1965 Onegin were chosen to guarantee good box office. Both works are proven crowd-pleasers, in the repertories of several companies besides the Stuttgart. Love and death courtesy of Shakespeare, love and renunciation courtesy of Pushkin, scenery and costumes in both cases by Jürgen Rose, a genius at transforming empty space into atmospheric place – what better way to keep the summer audience happy?

Despite world-class companies’ effective productions of both ballets – many veteran New York dancegoers use American Ballet Theatre’s Onegin, with Natalia Makarova as Tatiana, as their benchmark for the piece – the Stuttgart still has first claim on these works. Cranko’s choreography is the Stuttgart’s native language, a fact that frees the Stuttgart dancers from laboring tensely to get the basics right and results in a freshness and spontaneity of interpretation. It’s true that today’s Stuttgart (now directed by Reid Anderson, after twenty years under the guidance of Marcia Haydée, Cranko’s main muse) lacks the potent stage personalities Cranko molded and on whom he shaped his work. At the performances I attended, many of the leading roles looked slightly miscast, clearly because there was no one more suitable to take them on. Onegin, who should be demonically attractive, and Paris, who should appear fatuously eligible, were played by the same nebbish, while guest artist Vladimir Malakhov, whose entire presence evokes Hamlet, was cast as Romeo. Heroines to die for were interpreted by women who, despite their gifts, weren’t. Yet everywhere, from principals to ensemble, the company showed itself sensitive – and devoted – to the dramatic values that govern Cranko’s work.

Two of the finest interpretations came from veterans: Haydée’s Lady Capulet was nuanced and potent, a thin veneer of pride and formality barely covering an internal life that is all memory and desire. Kurt Speker’s Duke of Verona was the most striking realization of a minor role I’ve ever seen outside the Royal Danish Ballet, which specializes in that sort of thing. In a single brief passage, you saw an old ruler who was sick unto death – of life, of love and lust, of street brawls and cabals in high places – yet who, despite physical frailty, could assert his authority with a small gesture of an arthritic, palsied hand. Among the younger players, Elena Tentschikova was particularly admirable. Her Olga in Onegin delightfully embodied the idea that the glowing joy of youth is available to her because, unlike her fated-to-suffer sister, Tatiana, she doesn’t read books.

The choreography of both pieces is, admittedly, mediocre. Cranko knew how to put on a show, all right; his ballets have undeniable theatrical impact. But it’s a superficial one, without layering or mystery; everything in it meets the eye in one fell swoop. And once the entertainment factor is exhausted, the flaws in the work are quickly revealed: the unabashed banality with which Cranko used the classical vocabulary and the infernal gimmickry of the lifts designed to make the audience gasp. In the excellent souvenir book that chronicles the Stuttgart’s history, Cranko, asked for whom he created his ballets, is quoted as saying, “I think I really do them for God.” I find the statement touching, and pray God is tolerant.

Prussian Roulette