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By Evan McKie
In February the Stuttgart Ballet celebrated its 50th birthday with a three-week festival involving the whole company, its John Cranko School, guest companies, and returning alumni. We asked Dance Magazine’s newest Advisory Board member, Evan McKie, to report from his vantage point as a principal dancer with the company.
Monica Mason made a good point when she asked, “What would ballet be today without Stuttgart?” The Royal Ballet’s artistic director was one of the 21,000 guests at the Stuttgart Ballet’s 50th Anniversary (Mega) Festival this February, just as her great predecessor, Ninette de Valois, had attended one of Stuttgart’s first festivals in 1962. Neither de Valois, nor her young friend John Cranko, could have known then that Clive Barnes would one day praise the company as a “ballet miracle.” Opera-ballet has been around in Stuttgart for centuries, but it was Cranko who built the company that has contributed so famously to today’s ballet world
Stuttgart, now led by Reid Anderson, offers dancers and audiences a whole lot: constant new work from fascinating artists (Mauro Bigonzetti, Wayne McGregor, Marco Goecke, and Christian Spuck all created their first large-scale works here) and a plentiful catalogue of homespun gems: Cranko’s Onegin, MacMillan’s Song of the Earth and Requiem, and Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias to name a few.
Many guests stayed for all 27 events, including mixed programs, full-length ballets, and even a directors’ conference. In two galas, over 200 alumni and international guests gathered onstage for heartwarming curtain calls. “If these walls could talk,’’ we often think to ourselves…well for this festival, they did!
I was moved when I met the humble Jirí Kylián, who had arrived and begun his choreographic journey here just before Cranko’s untimely death. I danced his Return to a Strange Land, a piece that suited the wonderfully nostalgic feeling of this festival. Two great Stuttgart stars from the U.S., Richard Cragun and Ray Barra, were among my favorite guests. I didn’t want these contagious personalities, who had created starring roles in Cranko ballets like Romeo, Onegin, and Taming of the Shrew, to leave.
It was refreshing to be reminded that stars of yesteryear often fumbled while creating some beautifully complex work. Marcia Haydée and Egon Madsen reminisced about mishaps while laughing uncontrollably. Haydée told us that Cranko once told her and Cragun to remember the exact intensity and picture of a particular second just before they both had a serious tumble in rehearsal and then re-created that moment in a Shrew pas de deux.
After Cranko’s sudden death in 1973, the company mourned, but new generations grew up around his Stuttgart family. With Haydée as ballerina and mother figure, choreographers from Béjart to the American Glen Tetley (who briefly directed) created stunning works.
Neumeier, Kylián, and Forsythe were all part of the generation that grew from within the troupe. Their pieces at the festival were an amazing mix: Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet touched my heart in Nijinsky; Kathryn Bennetts’ Royal Ballet of Flanders (she too is an alumna) blew out my retinas in Forsythe’s philosophical Impressing the Czar, which contains In the middle, somewhat elevated; and the agility of Nederlands Dans Theater II in Kylián’s 27'52'' and Gods and Dogs made me want to be onstage with them.
At the end of the festival we were exhausted yet jolted with the energy of friendship. A unique glimpse into Stuttgart’s brilliant past was invigorating and made us so grateful for its artistically abundant soil. I can’t think of a better way to dance into its fertile future.
Evan McKie (center) with Nikolay Godunov and Alicia Amatriain in Jirí Kylián’s Return to a Strange Land. Photo courtesy Stuttgart.